Why you should care
Because for some women, honor can be a matter of life and death.
Noor was age 20 when she began working for Abed, first as a housekeeper, then as a nanny. One day, her 55-year-old employer, who owned a mobile phone shop in Jordan, drugged her and raped her. Realizing that the act would devastate Noor’s family, Abed pledged to marry her — his way out of a potential jail sentence, her way out of an inevitable life of shame.
“I was frightened, devastated and thought to keep silent,” Noor told investigators at the Sisterhood Is Global Institute, a women’s rights organization based in Jordan. And so at first she agreed. “But later I realized that I was pregnant, and I decided to file a complaint. I accused him of raping me.” Abed then invoked Article 308 of the Jordanian penal code, a legal loophole stipulating that rapists may be pardoned if they marry their victims and stay with them for at least three years.
Subjecting a woman to a life of abuse by marrying her to her abuser should carry just as much stigma as women suffer from the crime itself.
Samira Atallah, Equality Now
Noor and Abed married. “I thought that life with my baby might make me happy, but I was very wrong; my situation deteriorated,” Noor told the investigators. “My only hope from marrying him was to make my baby safe — to register him in his father’s name.”
Rape of a woman or girl by her husband is expressly legal in at least 10 countries out of 82 recently surveyed by the women’s rights group Equality Now. In four of those 10, marital rape is expressly legal even when the wife is a child bride, and the marriage has violated minimum age of marriage laws. Moreover, in nine out of the 82 countries, so-called “honor laws” enable rapists to wed their victims as a way of avoiding a trial and potential prison time. The only stipulation: The perpetrators must remain in the union for one to five years — the duration varies by country — or reach a “settlement,” financial or otherwise, with the victim or the victim’s family.
But gradually those laws are falling. In 2014, prompted by the suicide of a 16-year-old girl who swallowed rat poison after she was forced to marry her rapist, the kingdom of Morocco removed Article 475 from its penal code, a law that allowed a man convicted of statutory rape to escape punishment if he married his underage victim. Women’s groups were emboldened to start the regionwide takedown.
On July 26, the Tunisian Parliament passed legislation that outlawed violence against women, which repealed the article in the penal code that halts prosecution of a man who commits rape against a girl under age 20 if he marries her. Less than a week later, the lower house of Jordan’s “rubber stamp” Parliament revoked Article 308 cited by Abed, and two weeks after that, Lebanon’s Parliament abolished its “marry your rapist” law, although it kept marital rape and child marriage on the books.
With those decisions, women’s rights groups now have their sights on similar laws in Iraq, Kuwait and Bahrain. “Obviously, each country has its own political movement, but developments in one country do send shock waves across the region and do inspire the possibility of change,” says Samira Atallah, a senior adviser with Equality Now, one of the lead organizations acting to repeal honor laws in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region.
However, these groups face resistance from conservative value systems that treat women’s bodies as a social issue, century-old colonial laws that date from British, French and Ottoman occupations, and the severe stigma surrounding premarital sex — even if it’s coerced sex. “Virginity is very, very valued in these societies,” Atallah says. “Sex before marriage … makes a woman not marrying material according to society, and rape not only brings shame to women’s honor but also to the family and any prospective partner.” Opposition to such laws comes from women’s groups rising up and stating that “subjecting a woman to a life of abuse by marrying her to her abuser carries — or should carry — just as much stigma as women suffer from the crime itself,” Atallah adds.
Counter to popular perception, Sharia, or religious laws, have little to do with marry-your-rapist statutes, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Rather, the French Napoleonic Code of 1810, which allowed a man who kidnapped a girl to escape prosecution if he married her, and the similar Ottoman Code of 1911 weighed heavily in devising laws for former French colonies and British mandates and protectorates. Patriarchal attitudes kept such provisions in place.
As for Jordan, over the past decade, “groups generally never came close to success, other than occasionally sending a bill to Parliament and having it stall in committee,” says Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at HRW. “By all accounts, the king [Abdullah II] is a fairly progressive guy, but the society is very conservative.”
Nevertheless, last year Abdullah II — informed by the Arab uprisings of 2011 — formed a royal committee to strengthen the judiciary and came out with proposals and draft laws that would satisfy a populace that’s restless in many circles. “Because they had the king’s initiative, they passed,” Coogle says.
Conversely, the removal of Jordan’s 308 clause was also supported by conservative groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which voted to repeal the law in order to protect themselves from women who might have used it to legitimize illicit relationships. “They came at it from a weird way — to keep a woman from crying rape if a man tried to walk away,” Coogle says.
Despite the milestone, women still face significant retaliation until the conservative attitudes surrounding sex change. “It’s the sexually related behavior that brings shame on a girl’s family,” Atallah says. “The fact that she was raped doesn’t matter. So it’s not just enough to have these [laws] repealed — enforcement, empowerment and education must happen.”