I thought of writing this post a while ago, when students of mine were talking about marital rape as if it was a futile subject to tackle, claiming that women have the obligation of satisfying their husbands’ sexual needs (‘sex is a wifely duty’), that their own desire and consent do not matter, that God created women to be submissive to and obey men in every aspect of their lives, that what happens in a home is seen as private family business, etc. More than what Ms. Randa Berri said few days ago – ‘Marital rape cannot be proved, thus cannot be criminalized’ -, I am strongly concerned about the pervasiveness of patriarchal attitudes and deep-rooted stereotypes regarding the roles and responsibilities of women and men in the family (i.e. wives are the property of their husbands and marriage contract is an entitlement to sex), in the workplace and in society, of many Lebanese citizens. I am also concerned about the lack of information and accurate documentation in our academic establishments (schools and universities) regarding gender-based violence in all its forms.
Also, there are no established national monitoring indicators or tools and no national survey dedicated to gender-based violence. Research on the performance of NGOs on gender-based violence is rare. Furthermore, there are gaps in understanding the financial, logistical and cultural barriers preventing the prosecution of gender-based violence. There is no common national understanding, even no common definition between NGOs, of what are marital rape, domestic violence, economic violence and discrimination (family and State levels), modern forms of slavery, successful women’s empowerment strategies against violence, especially those developed and used by women survivors… There is, arguably, a reason to believe that extensive contextual researches and common non-governmental discourses positively contribute to policy reforms and mentality change.
In that sense, here are few points to open the door to a constructive debate:
1- Rape is rape, regardless of the relationship between the rapist and the victim – Please note that I refer to wives and husbands, however it can be understood to refer to all rapes perpetrated by an intimate. Also I am looking at rape on women, since this is by far the most common situation.
2- Marital rape occurs when your spouse forces you to take part in sexual acts without your consent. Broadly defined, it includes any unwanted intercourse or penetration (vaginal, anal, oral) obtained by force, threat of force, or when the wife is unable to consent.
3- Marital rape is generally sub-divided into three categories: violent rapes (involving physical violence and injuries, such as injuries to the genital area or breasts) – violent rapes are easily proven -; ‘Force-only’ rapes (including enough force used on the part of the abuser to control his wife, but coercion plays a large part – the victim may be confused and numbed by constant emotional abuse); ‘sadistic ‘ rapes (the victim is either forced to comply with or undergo deeds designed to further humiliate her – urinating on the victim, acting out a fantasy of torturer… There is a difficulty however to define clear-cut lines between the different types of rape, since rape can involve any of the above or a combination of them.
4- Researches show that marital rape can be equally, if not more, emotionally and physically traumatizing than rape by a stranger. Quite apart from physical and sexual violation, it is a betrayal of trust. Also, while stranger rape is a sexual act of violence apart from the victims’ normal relationships, marital rape has to be understood in the context of an abusive relationship – emotional and possibly physical abuse.
5- It is a myth that marital rape is less serious than other forms of sexual violence. There are many physical and emotional consequences that may accompany marital rape: Physical effects include injuries to the vaginal and anal areas, lacerations, soreness, bruising, torn muscles, fatigue, and vomiting. Women who are battered and raped frequently suffer from broken bones, black eyes, bloody noses and knife wounds. Gynecological effects include vaginal stretching, pelvic inflammation, unwanted pregnancies, miscarriages, stillbirths, bladder infections, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, and infertility. Short-term psychological effects include PTSD, anxiety, shock, intense fear, depression and suicidal ideation. Long-term psychological effects include disordered sleeping, disordered eating, depression, intimacy problems, negative self-images, and sexual dysfunction. (http://vawnet.org/assoc_files_vawnet/ar_maritalraperevised.pdf)
6- Many women who are victims of marital rape have great difficulty in defining it as such. The traditional idea that it is impossible for a man to rape his wife and that somehow, in taking our marriage vows we have abdicated any say over our own body and sexuality, basically denied ourselves the right to say ‘no’, is still prevalent amongst wives as much as amongst their husbands. Many women prefer to see it as a communication problem, or think that men are not fully responsible ‘due to their nature and their biological needs’, or have religious issues which question their right to refuse intercourse.
7- Sexism is at the heart of marital rape, just as it is at the heart of most forms of sexual violence. The widespread idea that a husband has a right to sex, and has a right to use his wife’s body for this purpose, makes it difficult for many in mainstream Lebanese culture to recognize sexual coercion in marriage. How can a husband be guilty of taking something that belongs to him? Often the marriage vows are seen as giving contractual consent to sex; hence the crude joke “if you can’t rape your wife, who can you rape?” (http://www.wcsap.org/sites/www.wcsap.org/files/uploads/documents/MaritalRapeMinnesota.pdf)
8- Sacred scriptures passages have been used to tell women that it is their duty to satisfy their husbands sexually – if a woman fails to do so, then she gets what she deserves if her husband “loses control” and rapes her. Women are also often told that if they “turn the other cheek” and love their husbands completely, they will be able to transform their husbands’ behavior. Many Christians enter into marriage with certain expectations, including regular sexual activity, while focusing on the following Biblical passages: “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other.” (1 Cor. 7:3-5). These quotes are often used by men to “convince” their wives of their sexual responsibilities: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” (Col. 3:8). “Wives, ‘be subject to your own husbands,’ as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.” (Eph. 5:22-24). However, the Bible describes the beauty and complexity of the marital companionship that creates the context of lovemaking: “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be embittered against them.” (Col. 3:19). “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her…So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Nevertheless let each individual among you also love his own wife even as himself…” (Eph. 5:25-33a). “You husbands…live with your wives in an understanding way…and grant her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. To sum up, let all be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit;” (1 Pet. 3:7-8).
In Islam, the Quran clearly establishes that the relationship between husband and wife should be based on love and affection (2:187, 30:21 and others). Rape is incompatible with this ideal. It is a crime of Zina, which refers to extramarital or premarital sex. Some jurists have argued that there is a standing “consent” given at the time of marriage, so they do not consider marital rape to be a punishable crime (or that within marriage there is no extramarital or premarital intercourse, thus, by definition, there can be no marital rape). There can be illegal intercourse within marriage such as intercourse during menses, during obligatory fast or intercourse which will harm the woman, due to illness, infection and so on. Lebanon’s highest Sunni authority had previously slammed the idea of criminalizing marital rape as “a Western heresy”. The Shiite Hezbollah movement, meanwhile, said the bill “interfered in the affairs of husband and wife”. Other scholars have argued that rape is a non-consensual and violent act, which can happen within a marriage as well. Ultimately, a husband has a duty in Islam to treat his spouse with dignity and respect.
9- Marital rape is considered a criminal offense in many countries including Argentina, Australia, Austria, Barbados, Belize, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Ecuador, England, the Fiji Islands, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Honduras, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Malaysia, Mexico, Namibia, Nepal, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, The Philippines, Poland, Rwanda, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Taiwan, Trinidad/Tobago, Turkey, the United States, Uzbekistan, and Zimbabwe. In Lebanon, the draft law against domestic violence (2010) recognizes the existence of marital rape, but marital rape is not defined as a crime – only assault and battery are considered a crime.
10- According to Articles 1 and 2 of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in its resolution 48/104 of 20 December 1993, violence against women include: (a) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation. (b) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women and forced prostitution. (c) Physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs. Sadly, this Declaration is not fully recognized by all UN member States, including Lebanon.
11- It is estimated by NGOs working with abused women in Lebanon that almost 80 percent of female victims of domestic violence are also victims of spousal rape (http://www.unfpa.org.lb/Documents/4-Review-of-GBV-Research-in-Lebanon.aspx – Review of Gender based Violence in Lebanon). But cultural norms and the social stigma often attached to rape can and do discourage the reporting of marital rape. Most victims do not seek assistance, especially not formal help, and significant barriers exist to seeking help including a scarcity of safe, accessible and effective places of protection and intervention.
12- The personal status laws encompass different degrees of domestic violence against women. Such laws still confirm the accessory role of women and allow various forms of moral and physical violence against them. As long as there is no common civil personal status law applied to all Lebanese, with only religious communities regulating matters such as marriage, parenthood and inheritance, marital rape will probably not be criminalized.
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