Protection, yes, but not enough
Tala and Sara were forced to watch as their raging father bludgeoned their mother with a pressure cooker. A marital dispute turned into a struggle for life or death. Manal al-Assi succumbed to her injuries 12 hours later in a Beirut hospital.
Fatima al-Nashar from Tripoli was pregnant when she lost the voucher for the next water delivery. Furious about the loss, her husband, his brother and her mother-in-law ambushed her and beat her. Fatima and her unborn child only survived the attack by a hair's breadth. Prior to the assault, she had made repeated complaints to the police about her violent husband. But the police did not get involved, regarding both of these cases as family matters.
Sadly, tragic events such as these are not exceptional in Lebanon.
Enough is enough!
For several years now, KAFA ("Enough"), a Lebanese civil society organisation, has been demanding a law that protects women from domestic violence. In co-operation with 60 other NGOs, KAFA prepared a draft bill which the Lebanese parliament handed over to a committee last year for revision.
Several religious dignitaries and politicians criticised the parliament's decision to even consider such a bill. "They fear a domino effect. They know that this law may lead to dramatic changes in Lebanon's confessional society," explains Abbani. Confessionalism is the Lebanese system which sees government posts and the seats in parliament allocated among the country's religious communities.
Although Lebanon is deemed one of the Arab world's most liberal countries, when it comes to civil rights, women are still at a disadvantage compared to men. For example, Lebanese women are not able to transfer their citizenship to their children if the father of the children is foreign.
"If a law is passed specifically for women, then one day this citizenship law could also be overturned, as well as many others," says Abbani, adding: "Equal rights for women present a threat to Lebanon's system of confessionalism. Many women would immediately divorce their violent husbands if they were protected by law."
Start-up funds for divorced women
KAFA also called for a government fund that would make grants available to women who are financially dependent on their husbands, especially women who have recently been through a divorce. These grants could only be requested, though, if the law applied to women only.
For International Women's Day on 8 March, KAFA organised a mass demonstration in Beirut under the slogan: "If we must protest to pass this law, we will!" According to the organisation, some 5,000 people marched from the National Museum to the Palace of Justice.
"I am here because there have been cases of domestic violence in my family too," said a 21-year-old protester. "My mother was able to leave my father just in time before he killed her. I remember that we informed the police several times about his violent outbursts, but they always told us that it was not their duty to intervene in such cases."
Progress in a number of areas
In this respect, thankfully, any refusal on the part of the Lebanese security forces to provide assistance in cases of suspected domestic violence was made punishable in the middle of 2013. Moreover, the Internal Security Forces (ISF) have enlisted KAFA as monitoring body.
In co-operation with ISF, KAFA now educates police on how to deal with victims of domestic and sexual violence. A seminar on gender-specific violence has already been introduced into the Lebanese police academy's syllabus. In November 2013, security forces launched a large-scale campaign, handing out fliers with the heading "We have a mission" encouraging women to dial the emergency number 112 if they felt threatened.
KAFA considered the campaign a great success; since the fliers were distributed, the police have put over 100 women in touch with the organisation. This number continues to increase, reports Abbani: "We are getting more and more calls. KAFA is currently supporting between 300 and 500 women. But I am sure that there are many more women out there who should pluck up the courage to take this step."
In March, the women's rights activist seemed confident that the law would be introduced with their proposed amendments: "The majority of members of parliament are in favour of the bill in principle, and they would vote for it." As it was, the bill that was passed on 1 April was a watered down version of the one activists had hoped to see, providing only limited protection for women.
So what happened? The new government under Prime Minister Tammam Salam was deeply divided on a number of issues, which meant that it was in deadlock and unable to begin its work for approximately a year. Once the deadlock was broken, Parliament passed the law swiftly, albeit without the amendments demanded by activists.
There was much disappointment among campaigners. Although the law makes provisions for restraining orders against violent family members, the definition of domestic violence is too narrow and doesn't include the criminalisation of marital rape.
The parliamentary committee also modified the original bill, changing the title to "Law for the protection of women and family members from domestic violence". This means that children and men would also be protected under this law.
Abbani disapproved of this decision: "It may appear like a good idea at first. However, violence against women is a highly special case that requires specialised protection mechanisms." In this context, Abbani points out that children are already protected by Act 442 and that men have the final word anyway in matters of divorce, inheritance and custody.
In short, Lebanon may have passed a new anti-domestic violence law, but there is still much for KAFA and similar organisations to do.
© Qantara.de 2014
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de