Abused Lebanese women also victims of legal system

AFP , Saturday 13 Aug 2011

The Lebanese parliament annuls a clause that allowed honour killings, or the murder of women or girls for bringing "dishonour" to their families, showing an unprecedented liberal trend in the Arab world

It was only a few months after their wedding in Lebanon that Suha's husband began what would be eight years of brutal beatings that left her bruised, bleeding and all but broken.

But two years ago, she decided to take matters -- and her three children -- into her own hands, in a country that has yet to pass a bill criminalising domestic abuse and marital rape and where women are banned from granting their children citizenship.

"For many years I was stuck and felt I had no choice but to suffer in silence," Suha, 31 and now divorced, told AFP, asking that her real name not be used.

"I could not go back to my parents' home because to them, divorce would bring shame to the family and they could not take me in with three children," she added.
Suha, a Sunni Muslim, was granted divorce by clergy of her husband's Shiite Muslim faith after she provided the court with a medical report showing she had been beaten within an inch of her life.

Her case is by no means unique in Lebanon, where a bill criminalising domestic abuse and marital rape has sparked the ire of religious authorities.

Lebanon is widely considered to be the most liberal country in the conservative Arab world, having granted suffrage to women before Egypt, Tunisia and even Switzerland.

But it was not until this month that parliament annulled a clause that allowed for "extenuating circumstances" in honour killings, or the murder of women or girls for bringing "dishonour" to their families.

The domestic abuse bill has yet to be adopted, as women's rights groups raise the alarm that the issue could turn into yet another political tug-of-war between feuding Lebanese political parties.

While the bill was submitted to parliament for study in June, the 128-strong legislative house has postponed voting on the law as clerics pull the stops on the bill.

The head of the parliamentary commission tasked with studying the domestic abuse law has said he expects parliament to vote on it by the end of August.

"There has been some delay in raising this bill for talks in parliament as other issues were more pressing, but I expect the domestic abuse law to be raised in parliament next week," MP Samir Jisr told AFP.

"I think we can expect a few amendments to be made to the bill, but it will be adopted."

Normally feuding Sunni and Shiite Muslim clerics, along with several MPs, have balked at the domestic abuse bill, arguing it would shatter traditional family values.

Sheikh Naim Qassem, deputy head of Lebanon's Shiite militant Hezbollah, said the bill "interfered in the affairs of husband and wife."

"Cloning Western laws that encourage the breakdown of the family and do not suit our society... will have a negative impact on Muslim children... who will see their mother threatening their father with prison, in defiance of patriarchal authority," said Dar al-Fatwa, the highest Sunni Muslim authority in Lebanon.

One cleric behind the Dar al-Fatwa statement argued that Islam did not and could not criminalise "non-brutal beatings" by the patriarch of a family.

"Dar al-Fatwa has two issues with this bill," Sheikh Hammam al-Shaar told AFP. "The proposed bill considers non-violent beating a crime, whereas Islam does not.

"The second issue is that the law would not recognise the authority a father or husband has as the head of the family."

But it is such beliefs, say activists and legal experts, that cause countless Lebanese women to suffer in silence.

"The vast majority of abused women do not resort to the courts largely due to social traditions, but also because they have no faith that the court will protect them," said rights lawyer Ghada Ibrahim.

"So we can only begin to imagine the true extent of this problem in our society."

The plight of abused women is by no means limited to one faith in Lebanon, a country of four million that is home to no less than 18 religious confessions.

Mona, a Lebanese Christian, suffered violent physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a husband 20 years her senior, as her family at first was more concerned with saving face than saving her.

Like Suha, she was pressured into marriage by her family in her 20s and, after the birth of her first daughter, suffered years of brutal abuse.

"Everyone around me advised me to be patient, including our parish priest, and said they were sure my husband would see the light, that he would change," the now 40-year-old told AFP.

"Well, he didn't," said Mona, who also requested that her real name not be given. "At some point even my parents said 'enough is enough' and took me back in with my two daughters."

As many Lebanese hold their breath to see how parliament will handle a bill that rights lawyers champion and religious leaders deride, activists say they are ready to take the battle to the next level.

"There is no justification for the attack on this bill," said Faten Abu Shakra of the high-profile women's protection group "Kafa."

"We still hope that our parliamentarians will make the right decision," she told AFP.

"But if the bill is not approved by parliament, we will up the stakes in our fight and take our struggle to the streets."

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