Laws that let rapists marry victims must be abolished, Mideast activists say

Wedding dresses hang from nooses in Beirut during a protest against marriage rape laws.

Story highlights

  • Jordan is set to scrap a law that acquits rapists who marry victims
  • Activists say there is popular support for reform of rape laws

Abu Dhabi, UAE (CNN)Several Middle Eastern countries are facing growing pressure to close legal loopholes that allow rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims.

Jordan and Lebanon have taken recent steps to end such laws, which often date back to the colonial era and have been condemned by rights groups as archaic and inhumane.
    On Sunday, Jordan's cabinet moved to abolish a law that lets rapists avoid prosecution if they stay married to their victim for at least three years -- a proposal endorsed by King Abdullah and expected to be ratified by parliament.
    Leila Hamarneh, Director of Projects at the Amman-based Arab Women's Organization, described the mood among activists in Jordan Tuesday as optimistic and expressed confidence that other countries in the region would follow suit.
    "It's not just that this article was ugly, but there is now new hope that something good will be done for women," Hamarneh told CNN. "The winds of change are here."
    Marriage rape laws are rooted in the so-called "honor codes" prevalent amongst tribes in the Middle East, Hamarneh explained. The laws were designed to restore honor to a rape victim in the eyes of her family following an attack.
    Ten Arab states currently have laws that acquit rapists on condition that they marry their victims, according to Human Rights Watch.

    'Forced to marry her rapist'

    Over the weekend, Lebanese activists mounted an eerie installation on Beirut's seaside boardwalk featuring 31 partially-shredded bridal gowns hung from nooses.
    The gowns were intended to represent "the daily death that a woman lives with when she is forced to marry her rapist," event organizers and Lebanese women's rights group ABAAD said in a Facebook post.
    In December a parliamentary committee announced a plan to abolish Lebanon's version of the marriage rape law -- known as Article 522 -- but the proposal is still making its way through the country's typically sluggish legislative process.
    A number of locals walked over from the far ends of the boardwalk to inquire about the installation. "Most were surprised the law even existed," Zayna Ayyad, ABAAD's digital engagement officer, told CNN.
    Activists in Lebanon and Jordan say that although many people are unaware of marriage rape laws, they believe that raising awareness will lead to wider calls to abolish them.
    Even the tide of "honor culture" that the laws sprung out of seems to be receding, activists say.
    "'Honor culture' is getting weaker, because there is more awareness about the harm it's doing," said Maya Ammar, feminist leader and media coordinator at Lebanon's women's rights group KAFA.
    Activists acknowledge that there remains a long road ahead, but progress is being made.
    In May of last year, Bahrain's parliament approved the scrapping of the country's marriage rape law, although the cabinet has yet to approve the move.
    "Lebanon, Jordan, and Bahrain should all move forward to adopt and implement proposed reforms to prevent rapists from escaping prosecution by marrying their victims," Rothna Begum, Middle East women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last year.
    "Other countries should follow suit."