Amina was born in Morocco. She was young, beautiful and forced to marry her own rapist. For many of us, these words conjure up a seemingly unlikely situation one may run into within the fictitious world of a novel or a movie. Alas, it turns out that Amina’s story is a fully relatable experience for hundreds of women in the Middle East. Similar tales, indeed, have become a disturbing commonplace which is increasingly part of a worldwide concern.
Rape is one of those subject that leave people aghast, something that hardly anyone enjoys to discuss. It is hard to say what the rationale behind it is: What makes men engage in such act? Does it benefit them in any way? And why does “rape” exactly happen? A multitude of studies have identified in it a reinforcement of existing power imbalances between men and women, with sexual subordination being another way to reinvigorate the masculine notion of absolutism and patriarchy.
A blurred statistical landscape
In Jordan, rape cases are at an average of 300 annually. Sexual assault has risen from 1,004 in 2011 to 1,360 in 2012, according to the Ministry of Justice. A study conducted by UNICEF on “Violence against Children in Jordan” (Elayyan, 2007) found that 50% of children receive physical abuse by family members and school teachers, while around one third are outraged by neighborhood adults. Because of its hierarchical nature, the family proves to be the institution within which individuals are most exposed to harm directly from fatherly figures, brothers, uncles, step-fathers and cousins.
But if the available statistics are supposed to depict a clear and comprehensive picture, they actually don’t. Dr Mumin Hadidi, former director of the National Center for Forensics, claims that such figures are far from being accurate and don’t really add up. Only a small percentage of rape cases are ever reported considering that, overwhelmingly, victims prefer to keep the molestation secret so that they won’t be stigmatised by their communities. In fact, while very few of them may find breaking the silence a liberating act, most victims are likely to tolerate the power abuse and conceal the shame.
It stands to reason that a legal system is supposed to protect any harmless ‘inferior’ from the mistreatment of a ‘superior’. And yet, in Jordan as in the Middle East at large, contentious laws are doing exactly the other way round. The draconian article 308 of the Jordanian penal code, in specific, allows rapists to get away with their crimes and escape punishment upon a sole, rather convenient, condition: they have to marry their victims and pledge to stay with them for five years. “A rape victim, when married, must not be divorced for at least five years without a justifiable reason,” it reads. In other words, charges are dropped off if the sexual offender agrees on engaging in a spousal relationship to his helpless target. As obvious as it may sound, a law that protects the criminal rather than the victim has led violence to become dangerously normalised.
The family decision to marry off their daughters to a criminal seems to be influenced mainly by the social pressure to cover a sex scandal. In most of rural societies, a woman who loses her virginity prior to being married is considered socially worthless and a real source of embarrassment. Also, arranging for her a ‘shotgun marriage’ with the sexual abuser may appear the only solution for families who cannot afford to financially support an ‘unmarriageable daughter’.
Over the years, activists have been lobbying relentlessly against this provision, calling on the government to repeal it, because it is unacceptable from a religious, a social and a moral perspective. In a recent interview with humanitarian news agency IRIN, lawyer and activist Taghreed Al-Doghmi argues that some 159 rapists have escaped conviction through marriage over the past four years. Other activists recently added that “a staggering 95 per cent of rapists continue to go unpunished” because of Article 308.
A further problem arises with another facet of the Jordanian law, which states that abortion is legally prohibited – even for rape survivors or in cases of incest – except when the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother. Women’s rights organizations are asking to permit abortion in exceptional cases of rape and incest given the burden and health threat they impose on the mother. But these demands clash with another movement that opposes abortion, saying it results in “the ending of an innocent child’s life, who has no fault in how he or she came into this world.” Last but not least, JNCW Secretary General Salma Nims emphasized the social biases that arise whenever “a woman delivers a baby as a result of rape or incest.”
Glimmers of hope
Amid growing disillusionment with the latest parliamentary decisions, a recent case may serve as a beacon of hope. Being forced to marry a 23-year-old man to avoid a scandal that would have blemished her family, the young Amina took her own life by swallowing rat poison. Her desperate gesture has sparked a global wave of outrage, but right after it, things seem to have been shaken up. In 2014, Morocco’s parliament unanimously amended an article in the penal code that allowed a rapist to escape prosecution if he married his victim.
In Jordan, the case of rape is still at the heart of a heated debate, with the government proving unable to follow through on some of its promises. The lack of consistency and the scant attention paid in addressing the matter lay bare the weakness of a legal system that has been long inefficient at tackling human rights abuse. Article 308 is the product of a narrow mentality still prevailing in the Middle East, where preserving honour and reputation comes first, even though this means feeding a culture of rape that condones violence and even rewards its perpetrators.
The 2014 achievement with the Moroccan legal system acquires great significance in the wider context of the region. In Jordan, as in Tunisia and Algeria, there is a critical need for change in a narrative that keeps unfolding. Feminists, activists, advocators, women’s rights campaigners and grassroots organisations are joining forces, sources and perspectives to make their voice heard with courage and persistence. With the launch of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence in Jordan, themed “Stop the killing of women and girls”, activists, lawmakers and media figures are reiterating their demand to outlaw rape marriage and drive social momentum against the culture of shame, urging the need for the media to take an “ethical and conscientious stance” against Article 308.
While some neighboring countries like Turkey are astonishingly sliding backwards, there’s still hope for such a loophole in Jordan’s judiciary system to be closed for good. It’s about time to push the government towards new reforms that ensure no other woman should ever be victim of an ideology and feel sentenced to death, just like it happened with Amina.