“Today […]I feel ashamed that there are MPs like you who represent me in the Parliament.”
Those were the stinging words an activist, Hayat Mirshad, chose to address the Lebanese Member of Parliament Elie Marouni with after hearing the MP’s intervention at a recent women’s rights conference*.
What was particularly provocative about Marouni’s statements were his words that “in some cases, we need to ask if women play an active role in pushing men to rape them.”
Marouni’s comment shows a deep lack of understanding of the issue of sexual violence and the importance of consent. Consent is an agreement to engage in sexual activities and it is everything when it comes to sex (as the video below cleverly illustrates).
But Marouni’s comments portray the aggressor as someone who is choice-less and lacking agency. He instead asks whether a woman might ever play a role in “leading the man to rape her,” suggesting that the aggressor might be led or seduced into committing an act he would otherwise have not done if the victim had not invited or welcomed such an affront to her bodily integrity.
In fact, there is a name for this type of reasoning: rape culture.
Rape culture is a culture where sexual violence against women is ― consciously or inadvertently ― encouraged, condoned and ultimately normalized. It is, according to one author, “a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women.”
Whether Marouni is aware of it or not**, his comment is actually condoning rape culture, given that the argument “she asked for it” is a textbook example of that culture. By asking what a woman has done to “lead” a man to rape her, Marouni might as well have said that, in some situations, the woman has “asked for it [rape].”
Unfortunately, such views are still common in many countries, and especially in Arab countries where men are sometimes portrayed as weak beings who lack self-control if faced with the temptation of a woman’s body. It caters to a view that women need to be careful in public or else suffer the consequences of being “present” in public spaces in a way that could be interpreted as an “invitation” for someone to violate their body.
In short, rather than asserting that there is no situation that ever justifies rape, rape culture asks: What did she do to deserve it? What was she wearing? Why was she out by herself? Why did she accept to go out with him for a drink? etc. In this regard, Lina AbiRafeh, Director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World at the Lebanese American University, said:
There is absolutely no situation where one can ever “wonder” what a survivor of rape did to justify or encourage rape. Rape is an egregious violation of human rights and bodily integrity ― never excusable under any circumstances. Any statement that directly or indirectly justifies sexual violence should be condemned. It is extremely dangerous to have officials who espouse these views.
Marouni’s words are particularly harmful given the setting in which he chose to let the public know his opinions. The context was a panel discussion about repealing Article 522 of the Lebanese Penal Code that says:
In the event a legal marriage is concluded between the person who committed any of the crimes mentioned in this chapter[including rape, kidnapping and statutory rape], and the victim, prosecution shall be stopped and in case a decision is rendered, the execution of such decision shall be suspended against the person who was subject to it.
It is worth noting that Article 522 was considered one of the “discriminatory provisions in the Lebanese Penal Code” by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, i.e. by allowing for her rapist to marry her and walk free as if nothing had happened. One of the committee’s recommendations was “that marriage to the victim does not exempt a sexual offender from punishment.“
According to Marouni, however, Lebanese women already enjoy their full rights. He also said ― according to a Facebook post by the activist who challenged him ― that they should thank God since they can still choose not to marry their rapist, as opposed to other countries where they would be forced to.
Rather than using his position as a public servant in order to promote gender equality and non-discrimination in law and practice, Marouni described the struggle for women’s rights in Lebanon as being unwarranted as long as men also suffer from violence.
Marouni later threatened to take the organization to court given the “abuse” he was facing as a result of his intervention. To add insult to injury, he also defended himself stating to local TV station LBC that: “I only wish that the woman who spoke with me disrespectfully had seen that all the women present at the conference rushed to take photos with me at the end of the panel discussion.” A Lebanese blogger aptly responded:
Yes, because people posing for pictures with you is exactly the standard by which one judges your sexism and misogyny... But please, by all means, keep on thinking women posing for pictures with you is enough justification for you thinking they’re open season.
Naturally, Marouni’s comments triggered a wave of criticism on social media. Lebanon boasts an active civil society that has played a large part in raising awareness about women’s rights issues, in addition to lobbying for changes in relevant legislation. However, the country is very much lagging when it comes to gender equality and protection of women and girls, leading Human Rights Watch to describe Lebanese women as “Unequal and Unprotected.”
Denying the perpetrator center stage
In fact, this controversy is part and parcel of a flawed approach to women’s issues from the Lebanese ruling class, as an online petition against Marouni’s comments unequivocally states: “Yes, we are angry, despite the fact that this statement does not come as a surprise to us. [Marouni’s comments] are the most sincere expression of the thinking and stance of the ruling class and political establishment in Lebanon.”
Recently, public attention was drawn to a notorious murder case of a woman, Manal Assi***, who was described by a report as “a victim of the patriarchal culture of silence.” She was savagely beaten and tortured to death by her husband. The sentence for the crime was a prison term of five years ― an actual 3 years and 9 months of incarceration, given that the prison year in Lebanon is 9 months.
The judge ― incidentally a woman ― ruling in her case interpreted the law in such a way that led to a genuine fear that “crimes of honor” had been reinstated in a country that had supposedly gotten rid of such crimes. The husband’s “bad temper” and insinuations that the victim had been unfaithful were taken as extenuating circumstances rendering the sentence completely disproportionate with the nature and severity of the crime.
For sure, I am not equating the gravity of a murder case with comments made by an MP during a panel discussion. The purpose here is to draw parallels in terms of how individuals in positions of power think about and deal with issues relating to women in Lebanon.
In the case of Manal Assi, “the killer, not Manal, is the center stage of the ruling” according to columnist Sahar Mandour. “This ruling came about as a means of accepting violence rather than protecting us from it,” she also wrote in her article titled “To be a Woman in Manal’s Lebanon.”
Similarly in this situation, the rapist, not the survivor, is the center stage of the discussion ― given how Marouni shifts the focus and priority from the survivor to the aggressor. He is interested in what led the aggressor, and in the survivor’s role in leading the aggressor, to commit the crime.
Had his focus and priority been on the victim, and hence on criminalization and denunciation of rape in all situations, and on the preposterous nature of a law that allows a rapist to be exonerated through marriage (the bride being the victim of his original crime!), Marouni would not have committed this error in judgement. In the same way that Mandour described a judge who was “'understanding’ of her [Manal’s] death,” we are here dealing with a lawmaker who is, in some situations, “understanding” of a survivor’s rape.
The only bright spot in all of this is that, as Mandour had noted in the case of Manal Assi, “what matters is that the eyes of the public saw this incident and recognized it as a crime.”
In this case, what matters is that the eyes of the public saw this incident and recognized it as a case of an MP who does not understand civil and political rights and who should not have a vote in Parliament. What matters is that more and more people in Lebanon understand the dangers of condoning a rape culture and speak out against anyone who attempts to whitewash rape, regardless of his/her position of power in society.
Survivors should be the primary concern in any discussion about rape. The importance of speaking out is that survivors of rape (both men and women) would feel comfortable and confident in reporting cases of sexual harassment and assault, without worrying that they will be asked about their culpability and responsibility in bringing that horrible experience upon themselves.
This ugly habit of blaming the victims and survivors of violence has got to stop.
* The video (above) is a report of the mentioned conference in Arabic.
** Note: MP Marouni held a press conference on September 10, 2016 and explained his position as a “supporter of women’s rights” and regretted that his comments had offended or disturbed some people. He also said that rape is one of the “worst crimes committed against any human being.” But he maintains that the condemnation of his comments and the smear campaign is being used against him for political purposes. There is currently an online petition calling on him to apologize to all the women of Lebanon, and especially those who have been and are victims of all types of violence.
*** The video below explains the case of Manal Assi (in Arabic).
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.