(Beirut) - Lebanon's parliament should adopt a draft law that would specifically criminalize violence against women, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill, which would criminalize physical, mental, and sexual abuse, marital rape, and so-called honor crimes, was approved by the former Council of Ministers on April 6, 2010, and referred to a special parliamentary committee. It has remained there since May 2010, in part because the country was without a government for months.
In late June 2011, both Dar al-Fatwa, the country's highest Sunni Muslim authority, and the Higher Shi'a Islamic Council, said that they oppose the draft bill on the grounds that Islamic Sharia law protects the role and status of women and includes provisions governing legal issues related to the Muslim family. With a new government about to start acting on legislation, the debate over the draft bill has continued. A coalition of groups supporting the measure rejected their argument.
"All Lebanese women, like women everywhere in the world, have a right to be protected from abuse and violence, regardless of their religious affiliation," said Nadya Khalife, Middle East women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The clerics should be using their moral authority to condemn gender-based violence."
The draft Law to Protect Women from Family Violence would assign a public prosecutor in each of Lebanon's six governorates to receive complaints and investigate cases of violence. It would also establish specialized family violence units within Lebanon's domestic police to process complaints. The bill also specifies the punishments for offenders, including fines and prison terms.
The draft law would require public and private healthcare centers to report cases in which they treated women who bore evidence of abuse. The bill would allow a woman and her children to seek a restraining order against an alleged abuser and would direct the public prosecutor for each governorate or court to make a decision within 48 hours.
Since 2007, the organization KAFA (Enough Violence and Exploitation) has worked on drafting and promoting the family violence bill. A coalition of 41 legal and women's organizations, including KAFA, has been pushing for legal protections against violence against women.
In 2008, the CEDAW Committee, the United Nations expert body that supervises implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women, called upon Lebanon urgently to enact legislation on violence against women, including domestic violence. It said that victims of violence must have effective access to redress and protections, and that perpetrators should be prosecuted and punished.
Dar al-Fatwa issued a statement on June 28 rejecting the draft bill, declaring that Islamic Sharia law deals with violence in the family appropriately by urging guidance, counseling, and other measures meant to keep the family intact. Dar al-Fatwa contended that the bill would diminish the father's authority in the family and his ability to raise his children. It specifically objected to the bill's definition of a family, arguing it would lead to "confusion in Lebanon's legal system," and new crimes such as "marital rape." The group maintained that the draft bill "intends to destroy the social construct of the family...built on a western way that is incompatible with the norms and values of [Lebanese] society."
On June 29, 2011, local media also reported that the Higher Shi'a Council supported Dar al-Fatwa's position, saying it poses a danger to families. The Shi'a Council's media relations office told Human Rights Watch on July 1 that the Council supports Dar al-Fatwa's position and is working closely with the Sunni religious body.
Dar al-Fatwa cited article 9 of the Lebanese Constitution in its statement, which protects freedom of religion and opposes state legislating matters that religious communities consider as within their purview. The article notes, "...The state...shall respect all religions and creeds and guarantees, under its protection, the free exercise of all religious rites provided that public order is not disturbed. It also guarantees that the personal status and religious interests of the population, to whatever religious sect they belong, is respected."
"Unfortunately, religious communities have improperly, and too often, used this constitutional provision to resist improvements to the status of Lebanese women," Khalife said. "Instead of trying to discredit the protections this bill would provide to women as ‘Western,' the clerics should welcome them."
On June 29, the coalition supporting the family violence bill issued a statement in response to Dar al-Fatwa's announcement, saying that the bill, far from being a foreign imposition, is "a product of our own local environment in which we live" and does not oppose any religious understanding.
The coalition noted that the religious courts, which deal with personal status matters such as divorce, custody, and inheritance, are not mandated to protect women from violence. For example, in cases of divorce or separation, the religious courts may consider an act of violence as evidence to support a motion for the divorce, but these courts are not mandated by the state to prosecute criminal cases and punish the abusers.
Only a few countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, such as Jordan and Israel, have comprehensive laws on family violence.
"Lebanon should show its commitment to protecting girls and women from violence by passing the family violence bill," Khalife said. "It would give Lebanon's women the protection they deserve and set a standard for neighboring countries to follow."