By Hibaaq Osman
Aug 3, 2017
In Jordan, it’s easy for a convicted rapist to simply walk free from court; all he has to do is to subject his victim to yet another terrible ordeal.
Article 308 of the Jordanian penal code means that a rapist can escape punishment if he agrees to marry his victim. Only if the marriage lasts for less than three years does he have to serve his time. Between 2010 and 2013, a total of 159 rapists walked free in this way.
After a hard-fought campaign led by activists and women’s groups over many years, that escape route is now thankfully closing after MPs agreed to abolish the law. It is the latest example of a wave of activism across the Middle East and North Africa that is gradually sweeping away laws which institutionalise violence against women.
Similar legislation has been abolished in Egypt, Morocco and just last week in Tunisia, while activists in Lebanon have seen their demands for abolition endorsed by the government and are now awaiting parliamentary approval.
In Beirut last year, artist Mireille Honein hung battered wedding dresses by nooses along the city’s seafront promenade. Meanwhile in Jordan, activists created a powerful video that has been viewed by thousands of people on YouTube and Facebook.
But while the activism challenging these laws is rooted firmly in the community, it may be surprising to some that the laws themselves are not a product of local tradition.
Article 308 is a remnant of the Ottoman rule, but its origin is even more distant – historically and geographically – as the Ottomans had imported it from the French penal code. In countries that were under French colonial rule, such as Lebanon and Tunisia, laws like Article 308 are a direct hangover.
The roots of these laws lie in the cultural impact of centuries under colonial rule, where subjugation was ultimately secured by a true “gentlemen’s agreement”. While foreign powers took control of the state, in exchange they offered local men complete control of their homes.
The colonialists fed and legitimised the misogynist voices within the colonised, and so many of the barriers that women face in the region stem directly from this strategy of using patriarchy as a tool of oppression.
When seen from this perspective, it is less surprising to find that law surrounding rape that gave birth to all those we find in the Middle East and North Africa was only abolished in France as recently as 1994 – only five years before Egypt did away with it.
But many European-imported laws do still exist throughout the region. Last year in Tunisia, a judge provoked national outcry when he ordered that a 13-year old girl should marry her 20-year old step brother after he raped her, leaving her pregnant.
This particularly shocking case exposes one of the few arguments supporters of these laws still cling to – the social stigma that victims of rape must deal with in the region. In a large proportion of cases, the true victims of this law are girls and young women whose families agree to the marriages as they feel the girls will be ostracised from society if they are known to be victims.
So powerful is the sense that it is the victims – and not the perpetrators – who are forever debased by rape, that politicians opposed to abolition claim the laws provide perhaps the only opportunity for victims of rape to lead a “conventional” life.
There is evidence to suggest that those attitudes are changing, with local campaigns perhaps as a driving force. Research carried out by the Jordanian Civil Society Coalition for the Abolition of Article 308 found that over 70 per cent of Jordanians currently support abolition – with only just over 13 per cent supporting retention. When Jordan’s National Council for Family Affairs surveyed attitudes in 2013, their results suggested the law enjoyed the support of over 55 per cent of Jordanians.
That there has been such appreciable change in public attitudes towards these laws demonstrates that such discrimination is not inherent to the societies in which we currently find them.
They are some of the last vestiges of colonialism, and will hopefully all be consigned to history too.