Lebanon: Sexual Violence Is A Crime Sometimes
I am against rape. I don't think this is a very controversial position to take. People should not be forced physically or coerced emotionally into having sex. I don't care what the gender makeup of the people in question are, and I don't care what their relationship is. Not everyone agrees with this position. In many countries, sexual consent is an implied provision of a marriage contract. The idea is that when two people get married, they are granted rights to each other's bodies and their resources (and yes, the fact that these two come together is interesting to say the least). In France, marital rape was criminalized (ie: rape within a marriage became a punishable act) in 1994, and as of today, most American states continue to consider marital rape a “lesser” crime than “stranger” sexual assault. In Germany marital rape was “recognized” in 1997, and in Japan "marital rape" is still considered legally impossible. In recent years countries such as Tunisia and Turkey have passed legislation that recognizes marital rape.
These past two years, the issue of marital rape has gained momentum in Lebanon. Here, civil law (largely inherited from its French counterpart) expressly exempts husbands from punishment and states that if someone other than the husband commits rape then it is a criminal act. Despite the fact that rape is regulated by civil law and adjudicated in civil courts, religious leaders, most notably the Mufti of the Republic (you can read his “opinions” on the issue here on his facebook page) are the most vocal opponents to amending the law. The reality is, however, that the acceptance of marital rape has little to do with “Lebanese” or “Arab” culture, and it cannot solely be blamed on the supposed backwardness of religious authorities. It cannot be attributed to some inherent darkness within Islam, as it so often is. In fact feminists across the world, from all different religions (in addition to atheists) and “cultures,” have fought the same battle and have heard the same arguments lobbed against them from civil, military, religious, and “traditional” authorities. In Lebanon, it is particularly obscene to single out the Mufti or the religious courts more generally for perpetuating sexism and patriarchy because women are considered the legal appendages of men in all areas of law and society. It is just too easy, and too convenient to think that the only obstacle to legal equality is religion, particularly when the constitutive exception in Lebanese law is a nationality law that holds that only children of Lebanese citizens who have a penis are worthy enough be Lebanese citizens. And by the way, if the infant has a vagina she automatically loses this entitlement. The argument cited to continue this discrimination is invariably the oh-so-sacred “sectarian balance” in the country. And yet when one plays devils advocate and says “ok, so men who are married to 'foreigners' should not be able to give their citizenship to their spouses or children either” one is met with blank stares, as if the thought never occurred to them. And I am sure that in many cases it hasn't, because all of these interconnected legal exceptions-from rape laws to nationality laws to marriage and divorce laws to inheritance laws to banking laws and to census registry laws- all of these together produce what it means to be a Lebanese woman today. And as a Lebanese woman, my enemy is not the religions authorities, or the civil state, or the criminal justice system. Rather, my enemy is the logic unites all these authorities together and makes them (sometimes uneasy) allies: the logic of privilege, ownership, entitlement, and a discriminatory weighting of gendered lives.
On Saturday, January 14th, there will be a protest demanding an end to the legal exemption of marital rape. This is a protest about bodily and sexual rights and it is one aspect of recreating the legal definition of the female Lebanese citizen. It is about the ability to say “no” no matter who is sexually coercing you. The aim is to hold anyone-anyone- who sexually violates a person's body legally accountable. Of course, we all know that criminalizing rape, or even amending all discriminatory laws, is only part of the battle. Sexual assault is a reality of life, and particularly for women and girls across the world it is a daily possibility that colors the way we inhabit our bodies on the streets, in subways, at home, at the workplace, in classrooms, at relatives' homes, in bars and in public spaces such as Lebanon's corniche. Personally, I consider the very presence of a public conversation on rape in Lebanon a victory. I have sat in countless conversations where Lebanese women and non-Lebanese women in Lebanon trade stories about the sexual violences that they have survived. I have heard, and participated, in the logic that we cannot tell our fathers, brothers or other males because they “would go crazy” and it is our duty to protect them. Often, people - even those who we think know better- make excuses for those that have violated them because they are in a relationship with them and believe it was somehow their fault, because they try to understand and move on, or because they simply cannot believe that this has, and is, happening. Girls across the country are brought up to be suspicious of ibn el-jiran and ibn el-`am-yet somehow the topic of sexual assault has yet to rise above the sensationalist treatment of the topic on talk shows such as al-'ahmar bil khatt al `arid. I have often wanted to combust in frustration because the open secret of sexual assault during the Lebanese civil war has not yet, and probably never will, be addressed. Even writing this, the hair on my the back of my neck is standing up, thinking of an archive of sexual violence that will never become “Lebanese history.”
Rape and sexual assault affects women (and to a lesser extent, men) of all genders, ages, economic, sectarian and regional backgrounds, and sexual identities in Lebanon-just as it does the world over. What is tragic about the acceptance of sexual assault and the legally protected entitlement over female bodies by institutionalized patriarchy in Lebanon is not that this is somehow exceptional-but rather the fact that the world over, the “problem” of sexual assault is just an example of theme and variation. I wish I were in Lebanon to join the march on Saturday. Not because I am somehow horrified by marital rape or by the continued audacity of the Mufti to offer his “opinions” publicly. But simply, because I am against rape-no matter who commits it and no matter what context or relational setting it occurs in. I want to be in Lebanon in order to help make sexual violence a conversation. I wish I was there to offer support to the few that have spoken publicly, and on record, about the violences that too many of us have suffered. Sexual violence is just as pervasive, and just as much of a “threat” as the familiar, and overwritten, script of sectarian violence. And yet on Saturday, many will not attend the march because they do not think that it concerns them or because it is not “their issue.” It is our job, on Saturday the 14th of January and every day after that, to let them know that it is.
11 Jan. 2012