A rapist will no longer be able to get away with his crime by marrying his victim. Indeed that was the law in Jordan until last week. Beyond allowing a rapist to marry his victim as a way to elude any prosecution and charges against him, Article 308 of Jordanian Penal Law also allowed for marrying a minor after a sexual relationship with her, along with dealings with all other sexual relationships from adultery to sodomy.
Article 308 was repealed last week after intensive discussion among Jordanian Parliament on issues related to women’s honor, virginity, sexual consent verses non-consent, and the legal consequences of all of that. This was no easy discussion in a majority Muslim country where a woman’s honor is directly related to her sexual activity — whether or not she’s willfully chosen to be sexually active.
The discussion could have been ignored for years to come as it is no easy subject for a society that for decades believed the best way to restore a raped woman’s honor is for her rapist to marry her. As a matter of fact, many not only in Jordan but throughout the Arab world, having grown up watching movies and reading stories of such marriage, believe this is the best way to “cover a women’s honor” and protect her from societal judgment. Some even see it as a way to avoid honor killing by their own family members. But when Jordan became a signatory of the Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights in 2013, women’s rights and civil rights organization took advantage of the opportunity and started pushing to repeal the law. They lobbied, demonstrated, and had sit-in protests outside of the Jordanian Parliament. Still, it was no easy matter to pass as liberal members of the Parliament are a mere minority and many tribal and religious conservative members resisted discussing the law.
It took King Abdullah II of Jordan to assign a Royal Commission for Judicial Reform in 2016 for a serious review of the article to take place. Between that, a push from the civil society and an endorsement by Prime Minister Hani Al-Mulki in the opening session last Tuesday, the vote to repeal the law passed. Members who voted to repeal Article 308 had various and sometimes conflicting reasoning behind their decision.
Women’s groups argued that marrying a rapist does not entail consent — something that is essential in Islamic law. “Any form of marriage on the basis of the fact that you want to go to get away from the hook is not a sincere marriage”, said Selma Nimes, secretary general of Jordanian National Commission for Women and one of the leading activists along with 63 other women’s rights and civil rights organizations who joined hands in pushing for change.
Some activists suspect that religious conservative members of parliament with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood voted to repeal the law as a way to stop any form of consensual sex outside of marriage from happening.
Indeed, part of Article 308 included allowing the marriage of those who engaged in adultery as a way to stop the man from being prosecuted and the woman from being labeled as dishonored woman. This provision was meant to protect women who may have been tricked by their lovers into having sex prior to marriage. But some argued that it was also used as a loophole by some lovers whose family refused their marriage as a way to force their family’s acceptance. They would have consensual sex, the woman would often report it to the police who then give them the choice of getting married to escape legal consequences of adultery. Often families would then consent to the marriage as a result — something that is culturally important in Jordan as families are the main supporters in wedding expenses, housing and other support for newly weds.
Lastly, some members of Parliament just voted for the repeal as a reflection of their endorsement of a government that gave public support for the repeal. Still there were those who were outspoken against the repeal of the law, including some women. Reem Abu Hassan, former minister of social development, was one of those who were against the repeal. Her reason is for opposing the law’s repeal boiled down to this question: “What will we do with the women who suffer from rape?”
This is no easy issue in a country where “honor killing” is still taking place. Though unlike public assumption, laws that that had given lighter sentences for men who killed for “honor” had been repealed, and a man can no longer get away with any killing of a woman for an arbitrary reason.
Still culturally, a woman is still held responsible for anything that relates to her sexuality even if she is a victim. Aisha, a young woman in a cafe in Jordan said, “All the pressure is on us. We lower our eyes when we walk the streets. We cover our hair. We wear conservative clothes. We behave politely. And, still, if any man harasses us, rapes us, or talks to us in the wrong way, we are to blame. The pressure is just too much.”
Gradeer Khuffash, an activist who supported the law, addressed the concern for raped women differently, saying, “Now we need other laws to ensure the protection of raped women. There are many laws that need to be put in place indeed. In Jordan, if a child has no father, the state takes the child away from the mother and the child is put in orphanage. Women’s groups are now demanding that DNA testing takes place to track the father and hold him responsible for at least the legitimacy of the child and financial support of the child.”
But more than laws, there is a need for a cultural shift and education on the treatment of women. Selma Nimes believes that the repeal of Article 308 is only “the first step towards the concept of women honor and its connection to her virginity.” The cultural shift in how women are seen and treated as it relates to their sexual behavior by consent or non-consent is still the big elephant in the room in Jordan. “For 20 years we have been asking for the repeal, there should have been an effort to create a cultural shift then. Indeed, there is no cultural shift but we have to change the law and we work on the cultural shift. this is just the beginning.”
Issues facing Jordanian women are still plenty. For this week, Jordanian women and the men who supported them are celebrating their great victory and their collaboration that made the victory possible.
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.
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