In Lebanon, women are victims of rape and the law

Sunday 23/10/2016
Lebanese girls look at scouts as they wear high heels during an event called Walk a Mile in Her Shoes aimed at raising awareness of violence against women, in Dbayeh north of Beirut, Lebanon, April 26th, 2015. (Hussein Malla: AFP)

Beirut - All seemed normal on that summer day that the Lebanese Red Cross volunteer was spend­ing with her friends at the pool, until she was asked by a young man to his private chalet for coffee. This invitation could have been a simple meeting between two friends but it changed into a sexual assault that is more than what a young woman — full of life and joy — could have foreseen and guarded against.
“I had a premonition that some­thing was wrong. I tried to leave but he was on the lookout, looking at me with weird eyes full of desire. The friend that I had known seemed strange at that moment,” the wom­an said in a shivering voice.
“I tried to scream but he covered my mouth with his hand. I bit his hand that silenced me yet this did not stop him from raping me,” she added on condition of anonymity.
The 28-year-old victim’s life was disrupted in a moment. In spite of the pain, she did not visit a gynae­cologist for fear of reporting her condition. She did not tell her par­ents of the incident, dreading their reaction, as in Arab societies many families link honour to virginity. She did not even dare to file a law­suit against the aggressor because she did not trust Lebanese law.
Her story is similar to many in which women fall victim to a rapist, in a merciless ruthless community and where the law is found lacking. According to Article 503 of the Leba­nese Penal Code, the crime of rape is considered a felony punishable by hard labour for at least five years. Article 504 amended the punish­ment, setting it at seven years; how­ever, if evidence of extenuating ex­cuses is presented, the penalty can be reduced. Furthermore, Article 522 states that where a valid mar­riage between the perpetrator and the victim is officiated, the case is discharged.
Lawyer Manar Zaiter, project manager at the Lebanese Women’s Democratic Gathering, said she tried to abolish Article 522 to pre­vent exemptions or sentence reduc­tions to those convicted of rape. Noting that there is no definition of sexual violence in Lebanese law, Zaiter said: “What is required is the criminalisation of the violation of the sanctity of the body. That is the act of coercion itself.”
“This has morale connotations regardless of the prohibition means. The text as stated is elusive legisla­tion. If forced copulation actually constitutes a criminal offence, why then isn’t it directly criminalised without resorting to circumven­tion?” she asked, adding that it is an “odious” law that forces the victim to become the wife of the one who had violated her body and soul.
Members of parliament have pro­posed abolishing Article 522 and to criminalise marital rape. Member of Parliament Elie Keyrouz described the existing law as one that “legis­lates rape and finds justification for criminals and facilitates impunity, as the rapist is exempted from pros­ecution were he to marry the wom­an he had raped.”
In psychology, the woman who seeks help is a “survivor” not a “vic­tim”, according to Rafka Abu You­nis, a social worker at the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering.
“When the survivor seeks our help, we quickly secure a safe space, emphasising strict confidentiality and a non-judgmental outlook. All of them suffer from fear, anxiety, confusion and guilt. They consider themselves responsible for what happened and this is the worst thing for a person to think about or believe in. They are not guilty and should not be held responsible for the deed,” Abu Younis said.
“As for the symptoms, they are many and of varying degrees: in­somnia, profuse sweating, glut­tony, aphasia, vomiting. The vic­tim of rape needs long psychiatric treatment to obliterate its effects that, most often, are kept enclosed within her but which might flare out suddenly. The girls who have been raped come to us totally exhausted but, unfortunately, they discontin­ue the treatment.”
There is no estimate of the num­ber of rape cases in Lebanon be­cause many incidents are not reported and culprits are rarely brought to justice. Victims and their families prefer to keep such inci­dents secret.
After several sessions of guidance and counselling, the 28-year-old rape victim visited a gynaecologist to check for sexually-transmitted diseases. This was followed by a psychological restoration stage and these wounds take a long time to heal.
The woman was helped to find a job and she is trying to start a new phase of life.