In parts of the Middle East and Africa, courts can let rapists walk free if they marry their victims. Alia Awada of gender-equality campaigners ABAAD wants Lebanon to abolish the law, saying that, far from protecting a survivor’s honor, it treats them like a criminal.
In March 2012, Amina Filali, a 16-year-old Moroccan girl, committed suicide after she was forced to marry her rapist.
According to reports, she had been attacked while walking down the street in her hometown of Larache. When her father reported the rape, the prosecutor suggested that Filali and her rapist get married, in accordance with a law that allows an alleged rapist to avoid jail time by marrying his victim.
The penal code, known as Article 475, was instituted as a means of protecting a rape victim’s honor, according to women’s right activists. In conservative parts of Morocco, as in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, if a girl engages in sexual activity outside of marriage – even in cases of rape – she is viewed as having dishonored herself and her family, leading to her being shunned by her community.
But, for Filali, instead of being protected, she was bonded to the man who had once brutalized her and ended up beating her. In response, she killed herself by ingesting rat poison. Two years later, following public outcry over Filali’s death, the Moroccan parliament abolished Article 475.
When news of Morocco’s decision reached Lebanon, where a similar law exists, activists at the gender-equality nonprofit ABAAD were inspired. They knew they had to take steps to have Article 522 abolished, to stop a case like Filali’s from happening in Lebanon. In November 2016, ABAAD kicked off an aggressive campaign to demand that the country’s parliament abolish the law.
There are no reliable statistics on the frequency of courts in Lebanon that order rape victims to marry their rapists, but research by ABAAD showed that 30 percent of people polled said they knew girls who were raped and then forced to marry the men who had attacked them.
Women & Girls spoke with Alia Awada, advocacy and campaign manager for ABAAD, about the issue of honor and the campaign to abolish Article 522.
Women & Girls: When a girl is raped in Lebanon, how is she forced to marry her rapist?
Alia Awada: When an [unmarried] girl is raped and the case is presented in court, the judge will suggest to the girl and her family that she should marry her rapist to protect her honor. All three sides – the judge, the girl’s family and her rapist – must agree to the marriage. There will be pressure put on the girl to marry her rapist because, in Lebanon, if a girl is raped, no one will marry her in the future and everyone will be talking about her honor. She will never have a normal life. Her family will pressure her to marry her rapist because they see this as protection for their honor, too.
We say [at ABAAD] that abolishing Article 522 is just the start of our work. The real work is on the ground, it is in changing mentalities. It is loudly saying that rape is a crime. It is about saying that women are the victims of social norms and rape laws in our society.
Women & Girls: How do you change the mentality that women are worth more than their virginity?
Awada: You can start with raising awareness [by] abolishing 522. You can talk about the consequences of forcing women to get married to their rapist.
The starting point is convincing people that rape is a crime, like any other crime. We have to encourage people to believe that there is a clear difference between rape and what we as a society consider a woman’s honor. There is a difference between losing your virginity and being raped.
We [at ABAAD] were all wondering how society viewed the victims of Article 522 and the victims of rape. We conducted a poll of 1,000 people from all over Lebanon. We found that only 1 percent of the population polled were fully aware that Article 522 existed. When told about the law, 85 percent of people polled thought that it compromises the dignity of the victim because it increases pressure on the victim to marry her rapist. When we informed people of the law and what it meant, people were really surprised and did not think the law was acceptable.
Abolishing Article 522 does matter, but what is most important is being on the ground and working on the mentalities of the communities, teaching families that, if your sister or your daughter gets raped, first, it is not her fault, second, she has the right to refuse to marry her rapist and, third, that rape is a crime and rapists are criminals.
Women & Girls: How does society view the rapist?
Awada: In the beginning the man would be shamed, but after he gets out of jail, society forgets about what he has done. People view the woman to be at fault; they don’t blame the rapist.
This is where feminist and women’s right organizations need to step in for the long haul. We can’t change society based on a one- or two-year campaign. We need to start by saying that women are victims and survivors of rape, and they did not do anything wrong. We need to start a discussion about dishonor and social norms towards women on all levels. In the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] regions, women do not have the luxuries of social rights, economic rights, political rights or the rights to control their bodies – we don’t have these social and legal rights. In Lebanon, we need to talk about society and the views of women’s rights – we are not on track [with women’s rights].
Women & Girls: How does ABAAD plan to get Article 522 abolished?
Awada: Seven months ago, we started thinking about pushing in an aggressive and positive way to abolish the law. We knew we had to be strong and we had to be smart, because, if we were able to get the public on our side, then we would have an army of supporters to get this law abolished.
We prepared a very strong campaign that exists on two levels. First, we had a public campaign which involved visual and audio materials that were able to touch people’s hearts. We posted a video about Article 522 and we had over 2 million views.
We also had a set of activities on a community level. For example, we put together a soccer match that was played by the most popular team in Lebanon in support of abolishing Article 522. Some of the most well-known journalists in Lebanon are women, so we brought them in to cover the match and to explain why the match was in support of abolishing 522. After that, everyone was talking about abolishing 522.
What has really made me proud is that we received calls from women’s rights organizations all over the Middle East asking us about our campaign. Tunisia has the same law [Article 277], and they have started to use our campaign material to ask for their law to be abolished as well.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.