The plight of a kidnapped 13-year-old girl from the Shiite suburbs of southern Beirut is highlighting the lack of legal protection of women and girls in Lebanon, where ingrained cultural habits and the sway of religious authorities are blocking the advance of women’s rights.
Eva, a happy-go-lucky teenager, was abducted early last month by a creditor of her father’s and forced to marry the man’s 23-year-old son. Her case became a cause célèbre in the country, and the ensuing outcry eventually forced the Shiite religious hierarchy to back down and annul the union.
But despite the backtracking, none of the girl’s tormenters have been arrested and they are unlikely to face any charges. And many Lebanese believe the abduction should be resolved by tribal customs rather than the legal system.
Eva’s ordeal began when her father fell behind on a debt and the creditor abducted the girl from outside her parent’s home, initially in a bid to pressure her father into resuming payments. The man then decided to marry Eva off to his 23-year-old son; a Shiite cleric, who knew the girl’s age, officiated. Under Lebanese law, religious authorities from the countries 17 sects have jurisdiction over their communities when it comes to matters of “personal status,” including marriage and domestic disputes.
Women’s rights groups were tipped off about the case and the father filed a lawsuit, with the kidnapper filing a counter-action. The abductor claimed the girl had given her consent for the marriage and the clearly bewildered Eva was even trotted out on Lebanese television, where she said she loved her husband. As a hue-and-cry mounted, Lebanese security forces intervened and freed the girl last week, and on October 29 Lebanon’s top Shiite religious authority, the Jaafari Mufti, annulled the marriage.
Eva’s liberation hasn’t satisfied women’s rights activists, though, who have been campaigning to set a minimum age for marriage and battling the country’s religious authorities to enact stalled legislation that would raise the status of women and enshrine many women’s rights. The same law would also protect women from spousal violence and make marital rape illegal.
For them, Eva’s ordeal highlights the lowly legal status of women in Lebanon and illustrates a host of abuses Lebanese women face in a country that doesn’t accord them equal rights with men. For columnist Jean Aziz, the case “exemplifies the tragedy of the perilous position of women in Lebanon”—a tragedy in which “religion, a tribal society, a weak state and backwardness of laws and rules intertwine.”
For Western visitors and tourists, women in Lebanon may appear much freer than their counterparts in neighboring Arab countries. And in many ways they are—as Syrian refugee women note frequently. “We have noticed there is a big difference between Syrian and Lebanese women,” says Maryam, a 31-year-old mother of five from Damascus. “My neighbor tells me Syrian women are weak. Sometimes I think I should be stronger like Lebanese women and negotiate with my husband and not accept that what he says is right.”
But freedom is relative and all too often depends on class as well as religion, says Rima ZaaZaa of the Lebanese NGO Tadamun wa Tanmia (Solidarity and Development), who counsels abused women. “We as women are not being raised to look for ourselves, to try to achieve our objectives, to try to look for our personal needs as well. You are all the time being raised as if you are in a submissive position.”
In Eva’s case, much of the public debate was focused on the fact of the abduction and the lack of parental consent for the marriage than on her age when being married off. “The case was outrageous just because she had been kidnapped. If the parents had agreed to the marriage, the transaction would have been totally acceptable. Even normal, I might say. Nobody would have lifted a finger,” notes commentator Ana Maria Luca on the NOW news site.
Some Muslim scholars argued for the validity of the marriage, if Eva consented, on the grounds that, according to sharia, the age of puberty is nine years old. And when it comes to the kidnapping some commentators argue that the provisions of tribal customs should take precedence and a settlement should be negotiated between the families—something the abductor has offered.
In much of the public debate over Eva’s case, there is a striking absence of modern concepts of women’s rights and equality, say activists. And they fear there won’t be much progress at eroding patriarchal cultural attitudes while mainly Muslim religious authorities oppose change on the grounds that Islam already deals adequately when it comes to women.
Since 2010 Lebanon’s Sunni and Shiite religious leaders have blocked a proposed law to protect women from family violence and to make marital rape illegal. Sheik Ahmad Al-Kurdi, a judge in the Sunni religious court, argues there can be no such thing as “in reality the husband is exercising the least of his marital rights.”
The day-to-day lives of many Lebanese women are filled with violence and subjugation, according to a recently-published academic study by doctors at American University at Beirut. The study polled 100 married women who visited the medical center for gynecological consultations and found that of the 91 willing to take part in the survey, 40 percent had been beaten by their spouses; a third said they had been sexually abused by their husbands; and two-thirds had endured verbal abuse. More than a fifth said their spouses demanded their social isolation.
“Intimate partner violence is an underestimated problem in Lebanon and has been largely ignored by the local authorities,” the study said. “The Lebanese health care system has failed so far to play a proactive role in identifying and referring abused women, mostly because the recognition of an abusive pattern in women is often blurred by cultural and societal taboos.”
What shocked the doctors, who completed the analysis of a survey—it was begun by a young female doctor who was murdered by her fiancée after breaking off the engagement—was how the women accepted their plight.The researchers found that many of the abused women were totally resigned to their situation, accepting their duty to obey their spouses and endure what culture and social norms dictated. Women activists hope Eva’s ordeal will help them confront those norms.