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Jordan ends pardon for rapists marrying victims

Alaa Juma
April 28, 2017

In some Arab countries, men who rape a woman but then marry her are protected from prosecution. But legislative changes approved by parliament in Jordan are making this a thing of the past.

Symbolbild Protest gegen Vergewaltigung
Image: picture-alliance/Pacific Press/E. McGregor

For Jordan's MPs, it was time. In a bold move, the Jordanian government decided to change one of the most controversial articles in the country's laws. Article 308 had been a source of contention for years. It permitted rapists to go unpunished as long as they married their victims and stayed with them for at least three years.

Opposition to the law had been growing for some time, and numerous international organizations shared in the criticism. They say it was partly behind the recent increase in the number of so-called honor killings: family members of the victim say they often didn't know what else to do, and so took matters into their own hands.

The decision by parliament follows an awareness campaign mounted by both Muslim and Christian activists. For years, women's rights activists in Jordan have been calling for Article 308 to be changed. They say it represented a double punishment for female victims of rape: first the rape itself, then being forced to wed their attacker.

Demonstration gegen Artikel 522 Strafgesetz in Libanon
Women's rights activists demonstrating against Article 522 in LebanonImage: Lama Naja

Legal protection for rapists

"The decision that's been made now is the result of years of activism for better legal protection for women," said Jordanian women's rights activist Amal Jaber al-Atrash. "But as important as this is, there are still numerous loopholes in the law. Women who get pregnant as a result of rape are still unprotected because the rapist is not obligated to provide for a child that is born out of rape."

She says there are varying opinions over why Article 308 and other laws like it were introduced in the Arab world. One theory is that the law was designed to protect a victim's reputation, but Atrash has another explanation. She says the goal was to bring the problem of rape into the legal sphere, but the end effect was that rapists enjoyed legal protection - not victims.

Legal situation in other Arab countries

Morocco has a different situation. There, rapists are punished with a prison sentence of between five and 20 years. In 2014, the country scrapped a provision offering pardons to rapists who married their victims. The change was prompted by the case of 16-year-old Amina Filali. In 2012, she was forced to marry her rapist, prompting her to commit suicide by swallowing rat poison. The case sparked outrage both in Morocco and abroad. Human rights organizations got involved, and began demanding a change to the law protecting rapists.

Artikel 522 Strafgesetz in Libanon Frauen Feminismus Libanon Gewalt gegen Frauen sexuelle Belästigung
An image from Lebanon's "No Means No" campaign raising awareness about domestic violenceImage: DW/K.Zein-Eddine

Change also appears to be underway in Lebanon. In mid-April, activists staged a protest, hanging wedding dresses from nooses along a beach in Beirut to press lawmakers into scrapping Article 522 from the country's penal code, which stipulates that rapists marry their victims as a sort of "reparation." No statistics exist on such cases in Lebanon, but the law is still valid, particularly in rural regions. "Every day, women have to fear being raped, and then forced to marry their abusers," said Alia Awada. She heads a campaign called "Abad" ("Distance"), which is working to have Article 522 abolished.

Victims often subject to legal persecution

Things work differently in Saudi Arabia. The country doesn't have a penal code; crimes are punished under Sharia law. Previous punishments have ranged from lashes to the death penalty. But if the crime took place in a location where women are not permitted, then the victim is also punished.

Sudan, too, has tough regulations for the victims of rape. If a woman reports a rape, she must also reckon with some form of punishment. She has to prove that the act took place against her will. If she fails to do so, she will also face charges.

Tunisia also offers pardons to rapists who marry their victims under a provision known as Article 227. The International Court has called for the article to be abolished, but of 100 political parties, only 32 voted in favor, meaning that Article 227 can still be enforced.

Legal change is just the first step

Human rights activists are now hoping that the vote to change the law in Jordan will lead to similar reforms in other Arab countries. "However, there is still a whole range of other laws that undermine the rights of women," said Jordanian activist Atrash. She says that scrapping legal protection for rapists is just the first step down a much longer path of reform.