Two weeks ago, Lebanon joined the list of Middle Eastern countries that have been making significant legal improvements for women’s rights.
In the last three months, a handful of nations in the region have changed and repealed old laws, or instated new ones, in order to be more progressive. Most notable was Tunisia, which passed a legislative package in July—the Law on Eliminating Violence Against Women—that protected women against violence at the hands of relatives or husbands, as well as against economic discrimination or public harassment. The law also created stricter penalties for crimes against minors and recognized that both men and women could be victims of rape.
Lebanon joined this progressive crowd when its Parliament finally repealed the law that allowed rapists to escape punishment if they married their victims. Jordan had made a similar move weeks earlier, also amending a previous code that had given fewer penalties to those who had played a part in honor killings, referred to as “fits of fury.”
These substantial changes have pleased activists, such as ABAAD, the civil society group that led the campaign against the marital rape law in Lebanon. However, legal improvements cannot be taken as total improvements toward gender equality. As Shereen El Feki writes for the New York Times, changes in the law do not indicate changes in culture. While politicians may eagerly pass laws to improve their standing against more conservative neighbors, calm international critics, or even to satisfy liberals within the country, long-held attitudes toward the roles of women are just as vital to the actual enforcement of legislation.
Unfortunately, says El Feki, conservative culture continues to be strong in Lebanon. Lack of education, significance placed on family honor, and pressure to marry are just a few aspects of Arab cultures that block further progress toward gender equality.
“The Lebanese government, at least, took a step toward women’s rights,” said Lina Abirafeh, director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, to Al Jazeera. “…But there is still much work to do. It is not enough to change laws. Everyone in Lebanon must act to change the way society views women.” This repealing of the law permitting marital rape, Abirafeh says, is a victory that is just “one small step in the right direction.”
Women’s rights activists throughout the nation say that there is more to be done. Manar Zaitar, a lawyer with the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering, argues that articles 505 and 518 should have been repealed as well. These articles allow the rape clause to apply to girls between the ages of 15 to 18 who have had a prior promise of marriage. Lebanon has no minimum age for marriage, and Zaitar argues that repealing articles 505 and 518 in addition to the marital rape law would have simplified the process of creating a minimum age. Zaitar, like many others, acknowledges that the road to improving women’s rights in Lebanon is still long, even with the repealing of the rape law.
“There are rights,” said Zaitar, “and they were supposed to be granted years ago.”
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