Reforming the laws that forced women to marry their rapists

Years of collective mobilisation, strategising and innovation by women’s rights groups culminated in the repeal or reform of archaic laws across the Northern Africa and Western Asia region.

Originally published in UN Women’s flagship report Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020: Families in a Changing World

In Lebanon, activists hung tattered wedding dresses outside public buildings in order to draw attention to laws that forced women to marry their rapists. Photo: ABAAD by Patrick Baz /AFP

The summer of 2017 was an extraordinary time for women’s rights groups across Northern Africa and Western Asia. After years of relentless campaigning, they finally saw laws that had for decades forced women to marry their rapists falling one by one.

In the space of a month, the Governments of Tunisia, then Jordan and finally Lebanon repealed or reformed clauses in their penal codes that enabled perpetrators to evade prosecution if they married the woman they had attacked and allowed families to force women into marriage with their rapists to prevent the social stigma of pre-marital sex.

It was a historic victory for the women’s movement across the region; a victory built on years of collective mobilization, strategising, partnership building and innovation.

“What we saw that summer was the results of ongoing persistence from women across the region,” says Hibaaq Osman, the founder and CEO of the Karama movement, a network of activists and civil society groups working throughout the Arab world. “Our main learning from this was that change has to be home-grown, but that we also grow stronger when we work together across borders towards one common goal.”

In Jordan, campaigners had seized the opportunity for legislative change when, in October 2016, King Abdullah II ordered a reform of the 1960 penal code. The code had included an article that suspended criminal prosecution for rapists if they married their victims. According to figures from the country’s Ministry of Justice, 159 rapists had used this article between 2010 and 2013 to avoid punishment.

Asma Khader, chief executive of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute (SIGI) in Jordan. Photo: UN Women/Christopher Herwig

“We understood that this was a great opportunity to help shape the agenda of penal reform and that we needed to get our voice heard and our demands listened to,” says Asma Khader, chief executive of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute (SIGI). She says the momentum for the campaign was built on the successful repeal of similar laws in Egypt in 1999 and Morocco in 2014.

Activists created a base of evidence to counter arguments that the article kept families together and shielded women from the stigma of extra-marital sex.

“We understood from Morocco the need to root our campaigning in the stories of real women,” Khader says. That country repealed its rape marriage laws after the widely publicized case of 16-year-old Amina Filali, who killed herself after she was forced to marry the man she accused of raping her.

Rooting the messaging in the stories of local women and girls also helped counter accusations from opponents that the campaign was being led by feminists pursuing a western agenda who had no right to be interfering in family law.

“We documented 22 cases where the use of this article in the courtroom had led to marriage and how nearly all had ended in violence or divorce,” Khader says. “We used a media campaign to back this up and argue that marriage and family life cannot be based on impunity and criminality.” The women’s movement in Jordan worked for the three years leading up to the penal code review to gain broad support.

Eventually their campaign was so successful that the parliament, which had the choice of either repealing or amending the law, removed all the legal loopholes that let rapists escape the consequences of their crimes.

In Lebanon, the fight to repeal article 522, which gave similar immunity to rapists if they married their victims, gained momentum after women’s groups conducted a survey that showed only 1 per cent of Lebanese people knew that such a provision even existed in its penal code.

“Once we had that figure, it became a really powerful advocacy tool and a way to create pressure and build momentum,” says Ghida Anani, founder of ABAAD, a Lebanese women’s rights organization that spearheaded the campaign with support from UN Women. “We could successfully argue that this was not part of our traditions and did not reflect the values or principles of our society. It was only used by lawyers looking for ways to allow rapists to evade prosecution.”

A shocking and provocative campaign featured a bruised and battered woman being wrapped in bandages that slowly become a wedding dress, and this became the key visual element to a huge social media push designed to rally the public behind the repeal of article 522. As the date of the vote became closer, public demonstrations took place. Activists wearing bloodied wedding dresses protested outside parliament and tattered wedding dresses hung like corpses outside public buildings.

“The public-facing and social media elements were part of a much wider tactical strategy,” says Anani. “We didn’t want to just make this a feminist campaign that was attacking the Government. We needed to create something that everyone could get behind. When the Lebanese Government voted to repeal 522, it was a collective victory.”

In Lebanon, the campaign to repeal article 522 made use of striking visuals of women wearing bandages as wedding dresses. Photo: ABAAD by Patrick Baz /AFP

The successes of 2017 have spurred on women’s movements across the region, with activists also successful in repealing similar laws in the State of Palestine’s penal code in 2018.

“We need to see changes to provisions that allow child marriage, that deny the existence of rape in marriage, that deny women equal rights to their children,” says Osman. “We see what we can achieve when we are organized and strategic. We will not give up.”