Beirut, Lebanon – Georgina twiddles her thumbs as she struggles to talk about the events that forced her into a shelter in northern Lebanon. Behind her, children’s drawings line the walls; they are renditions of the children’s recurring nightmares, and they feature blood-splattered men bearing knives.
“It’s true that I am spending this Mother’s Day in a shelter, but at least I am with my kids,” Georgina, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, told Al Jazeera. A Syrian national, she said going to the Lebanese police was never an option because her in-laws have strong connections to members of the security services.
Referred to the safe house by women’s rights group Resource Center for Gender Equality (ABAAD), Georgina has filed a restraining order against her abusive husband. It is the first time she has obtained a court order against him in 13 years of marriage.
“When we first got married, he started to slap me…Then he started to hit me with his empty vodka bottles… The night before I left for the last time, he beat me up so badly, I thought I was going to die,” she said.
Georgina has joined a growing chorus of voices that are forcing the Lebanese judiciary to take action on the relatively taboo subject of domestic violence. In March, Lebanon passed its first law criminalising domestic violence. However, the law fell short of civil society’s demands, prompting more protests against what was seen as a strong blow to more than seven years of women’s rights advocacy work.
I think people are really changing in their attitudes about this subject, and I think this is all because Roula Yaacoub's family broke the silence about it.
On March 8, International Women’s Day, over 5,000 demonstrators protested outside the Justice Palace in Beirut against what they described as “lethal inaction” by the state on the issue. The protest was hailed as one of the largest in recent memory on a social issue in Lebanon.
Maya Ammar, a spokesperson at the Lebanese anti-domestic violence group KAFA, said the alleged murder of 31-year-old Roula Yaacoub last July in the northern town of Halba was the catalyst. “I think people are really changing in their attitudes about this subject, and I think this is all because Roula Yaacoub’s family broke the silence about it,” Ammar told Al Jazeera.
The courts acquitted Yaacoub’s husband of the murder earlier this year, ruling that she died of natural causes, though the court acknowledged she was repeatedly beaten in the days before her death.
Previously, most victims of domestic murders were shrouded in anonymity, identified in news reports only by their initials. This year, mothers of murdered women spearheaded the call for the Women’s Day protest in a YouTube video, and walked arm-in-arm at the front of the hours-long march.
Rights groups are also taking more substantial steps to address the issue. Last summer, KAFA and the Internal Security Forces launched a nationwide billboard campaign encouraging women to report domestic abuse. In 2013, ABAAD opened the first of three halfway houses for women in the country.
According to KAFA, an average of one woman dies from domestic violence every month in Lebanon. Among the women killed this year were Christelle Abu Shakra, allegedly poisoned by her spouse on Valentine’s Day, and 24-year-old Rouqaya Mounzer, who was shot in the chest by her husband.
According to ABAAD and KAFA, pressure to keep quiet about domestic abuse means that women often endure abuse for years without alerting the police. But more systemic issues also come into play, such as the absence of legal protections.
|On average one woman dies every month in Lebanon as a result of domestic violence, local women’s rights groups say [EPA]|
First authored by KAFA, the draft version of the law originally came under fire from conservative elements of Lebanese society.
On June 23, 2011, Lebanon’s highest Sunni Muslim religious authority, Dar al-Ifta, issued a statement denouncing the draft law for “disintegrating Muslim families in Lebanon and preventing children from being raised according to Islam, in addition to causing a conflict of competences between the concerned civil and Islamic courts”.
In 2012, the parliamentary subcommittee charged with reviewing the draft law made some considerable concessions to the religious authorities. A clause criminalising marital rape was removed, and the bill “Protecting the woman from family violence”, was renamed “The Law on the Protection of Women and other Family Members from Domestic Violence”.
No modifications were made to the amendments of the recently-passed law, in spite of repeated requests from rights groups.
“Our request is to criminalise any violation of the body’s sanctity and the act of coercion,” said a statement by KAFA released after the law’s passing. Penalties stipulated under the new law were already included in existing laws, the statement goes on to say, due to the removal of gender specificities and the absence of protections against marital rape.
Women’s rights groups staged protests outside parliament after the law’s passing and built a wide-reaching social media campaign called #nolawnovote. People have also pledged to boycott upcoming Lebanese parliamentary elections unless amendments to the law are made.
“I believe there is a very important debate in Lebanon now regarding the issue of domestic violence,” explained civil rights lawyer Nizar Saghieh. “The judiciary now feels more responsible with the new cases it is handling, and I think the media is playing a very important role in highlighting them,” Nizar told Al Jazeera.
We can’t live in fear of reporting the crimes. Otherwise, how are the courts and police supposed to do their work?
Former Lebanese Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi defended the court’s decision to acquit Roula Yaacoub’s husband for her murder. The case was heard under his time as minister. “The question the court faced was not about whether Roula Yaacoub was beaten, but rather whether it was the beating that caused her death,” he told Al Jazeera. “There was simply not enough evidence to establish a link.”
Qortbawi dismissed claims that the Lebanese judiciary has handled domestic violence cases improperly, and pointed to a growing number of female justices in Lebanon to shoot back against accusations that the judiciary does not respect women’s rights.
Qortbawi blamed social taboos surrounding the issue for debilitating the judiciary’s work on the issue. “We can’t live in fear of reporting the crimes. Otherwise, how are the courts and police supposed to do their work?” Qortbawi said.
Fatima, another survivor of domestic abuse who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, ran away from home at 16 to avoid a marriage arranged by her father, who she said physically tortured her.
When she went to the police for help, she was told to either go back home, or marry the man who helped her leave the village. She decided to marry him, but after four years of abuse, she was jailed for adultery after she tried to escape with her male neighbour.
“I feel betrayed by everyone I have ever trusted, and don’t know who to turn to any more,” Fatima said. She has lived in a shelter since she was released from prison in January. She added that her son was taken from her when she was arrested, and is now living in an orphanage.
“I know nothing about my son, and I think that above all things, this is what hurts me the most.”