Why Lebanese women are protesting a decades-old rape law

About a dozen white veiled women stood outside government buildings on Tuesday as Lebanon's parliament discussed whether or not it should do away with a law that decriminalizes rape, provided the rapist marries his victim. 

Bilal Hussein/AP
A dozen Lebanese women dressed as brides in white wedding dresses stained with fake blood, with their eyes, knees, and hands bandaged, stand in front of the government building in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday.

A dozen Lebanese women dressed in bloodstained wedding dresses gathered outside of government buildings in Beirut on Tuesday to protest a rape law that they say is archaic and unjust.

The late 1940s law dictates that a rapist will not be punished if he marries his victim, a provision that astounds many women today. Protesters say that this law violates survivors' rights, and should be repealed. The law is currently being discussed in parliament.

These protesters join a wave of women around the region in protesting laws that they say are unjust or outdated, from Saudi driving bans to other proposals to pardon men convicted of rape if they marry the victim. 

"We reject this violation of women regardless of their age, background, environment, whether they have special needs or the circumstances of the rape," said local NGO leader Ghida Anani, according to the Associated Press. "This is like saying the victim is a victim twice, a daily victim because she has to share her life with a person that violated her, and is hence raped every day."

Female activists in Lebanon are hopeful that recent political shifts could bring progress on the matter, and that years of campaigning will pay off. After more than two years without a president, parliament elected Michel Aoun in October.

Under Lebanese law, rape is punishable by up to seven years in prison, with increasing penalties for a series of different circumstances. Yet no matter the circumstances, Article 522 states that criminal prosecution must be suspended if the rapist marries the victim. The law’s supporters say that the marriage provision can help salvage the victim’s honor.

Among Tuesday’s protesters were sexual assault survivors, who say they are horrified by the implications of that law.

One woman, Hayam Baker, was assaulted when she was in a hospital bed recovering from an injury. She wasn’t raped. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t think about what might have been.

"Imagine if he had raped me?" Ms. Baker told AP. "If my children ask how did I meet their father, what do I say? 'I married the person who raped me!'"

Lebanon’s white-veiled protesters are making their stand at a time when women in Saudi Arabia and Yemen are also protesting laws that they see as violating women’s rights.

In Saudi Arabia, women are speaking up against cultural and legal restrictions prohibiting women from driving. During a 2013 protest against the anti-driving law, dozens of women took to the roads, despite social backlash. Although they met limited success in 2013, protests against the anti-travel rule are ongoing, particularly among women who work outside them home, many of whom can't afford taxis or personal drivers.

Earlier this year, Saudi women protested government investment in the ride-hailing company Uber, saying the move was just another way to keep women away from the wheel.

In Yemen, women have also embraced peaceful protest, pushing back against a government crackdown on demonstrations, particularly former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's claim that it was un-Islamic for women to participate.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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