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Lebanon’s legal blind spot

Remembering Roula

Friends and family gather to protest following the death of Roula Yaacoub in Halba, northern Lebanon. © www.hummusforthought.com

Domestic violence is still not a crime in this supposedly progressive state, as Harriet Fitch Little explains. 

In late July, the staff at KAFA – the most prominent domestic violence NGO in Lebanon – received a phone call that surprised them. It came from a family in the northern town of Halba, and concerned the death of their daughter Roula Yaacoub – a mother of five who was allegedly beaten to death by her husband earlier that month. The story the family told of Yaacoub’s death was not unusual; the most conservative media estimates suggest that every month a woman loses her life at the hands of a male partner in Lebanon. What made the conversation stand out was the fact the family were calling at all. ‘They said, “Please help. We don’t want this guy to get away with what he did,”’ recalls Maya Ammar – KAFA’s communication officer. ‘This isn’t a very common scenario. Often families want to hide what happened.’

Yaacoub’s family resorted to KAFA’s hotline for assistance because no law exists targeting domestic violence in Lebanon’s civil courts, an absence which jars with the country’s self-styled image of being a regional champion of female empowerment. ‘If a woman goes to the police with a complaint, the most they can do is get the man to sign a commitment that he won’t do it again, but that has no legal power,’ explains Ammar. ‘Mostly the police just say it’s a private issue and dismiss it.’

Yaacoub’s death prompted relatives and neighbours to take to the streets in a rare show of public anger. They blocked the roads and addressed the gathered media: ‘Roula is dead but her voice is not’ was the chant. The timing was prescient, coinciding with parliament debating a draft law advanced by KAFA which would, for the first time, criminalize violence against women. The legislation has been shuffling between various parliamentary committees for the last five years during which time, Ammar jokes, the NGO’s staff have been inadvertently transformed into experts on legal processes and bureaucratic wrangling.

The difficulty in passing this kind of legislation runs far deeper than simply combatting a state with strong patriarchal inclinations. A key mechanism for maintaining the fragile entente cordiale between Lebanon’s 15 religious communities is the agreement that all family issues – divorce, child custody, family inheritance and, until now, domestic violence – are ruled on by authorities from within one’s own community; being registered as without a religion is not an option. If the law criminalizing domestic violence were to be passed, it would be only the second time the civil courts have asserted their authority over this system of religious ruling. A law setting out child protection measures was passed in 2002, and since then secular and non-secular authorities have been involved in fiery clashes when their verdicts in custody battles have differed.

Whilst there is an acknowledgement from some leaders within both Christian and Muslim sects that unified protection legislation is needed, there has also been fierce opposition. The most strident attacks have come from elements of the Sunni community, with Lebanon’s Mufti authority Mohammed Rachid Qabbani decrying the legislation as a Western import bought with Western money. ‘It was the same old symphony’ sighs Ammar, ‘but it meant that some people within the community who backed us before changed their minds.’

Despite the opposition of certain religious figures, Ammar is keen to clarify that the blockage is primarily the result of communities trying to preserve their sphere of influence, rather than the product of overwhelmingly reactionary social forces. She points out that in Muslim majority countries, including Tunisia and Jordan, legislation is in place to protect women in the home: ‘The problem is just that here people refuse to accept that the secular state takes over’ she explains.

The surge in public anger surrounding Yaacoub’s death carried the draft law through its review by the parliamentary joint committee bringing it one stage closer to implementation, but issues still remain. Many key players refuse to accept the existence of marital rape, and the draft has been modified to provide generalized protection for all family members rather than just women. KAFA believes it is essential to preserve the gender dimension of the law: ‘You risk providing a loophole if the man can claim the woman also hit them, even if it was in self-defence,’ insists Ammar.

With an eye to the long game, KAFA also holds that targeting the law explicitly at violence against women is a necessary first step in getting society to recognize that domestic abuse is an endemic problem in Lebanon. Whilst the public generally express sympathy for the victims of abuse, the comments underneath news articles reporting Yaacoub’s death have been littered with statements apportioning blame to the victim, asking why she stayed with a man who beat her for long enough to have five children. ‘There is a persistent culture of blaming women,’ Ammar states. ‘If we manage to pass this law at last, it will create awareness,’ she insists, pointing out that reform in the judiciary makes up only a small part of the work KAFA is involved in. ‘We are working in parallel on the ground and on the legal level. Hopefully with both, attitudes will begin to change.’

Harriet Fitch Little is a journalist based in Beirut with a focus on social commentary, women’s issues and the local cultural scene. She tweets at @HarrietFL. 

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