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Friday, December 2, 2011

Lebanon: Rape, Murder and The Failure of The State

By Guest Blogger: Nadine Moawad

The attempted rape and murder of Myriam Achkar in Sahel Alma has angered and outraged all of us. Myriam’s story is tragic and brings us face to face with the cruelest, most heinous of crimes. We are frustrated and enraged because it is unjust that she dies like this. A young woman, 28, takes a 20-minute walk from her home in the suburbs and gets sexually attacked and then murdered by a man.

That’s really what the story is: A young woman, 28, takes a 20-minute walk from her home in the suburbs and gets sexually attacked and murdered by a man.

But that’s not the story we’re hearing everywhere. What we’re hearing is: A young, Christian, virgin woman, 28, takes a 20-minute walk from her home to a church to pray, and gets sexually attacked and murdered by a Syrian worker.

And so the anger and outrage becomes Christian anger against Syrians. The family thirsts for his blood. They want to lynch him in the public square of Jounieh. They feel wronged as a religious community. This is violence from Syrians towards all Christians, and the Christians are too forgiving, they say. And they stress that Myriam was a practicing believer. She was not out in Gemmayze at 1am, they say. She was on her way to pray.

Nationality and religion have nothing to do with why Myriam was attacked. Really. I am not justifying the murder, God forbid anyone should justify the crime. And the rapist murderer, Fathi Jaber Al-Salatini should be tried, and if convicted, go to jail until he dies. I’m just stating a fact. Nationality and religion have nothing to do with the violence Myriam faced. What time it was, what she was wearing, what she was on her way to do, none of that matters. She was still brutally violated and her barbaric murder was not motivated by theft or hatred. It was motivated by rape.

Her story is, very sadly, not unique. I have heard dozens of stories about rape, from people and from survivors themselves. And so have you. If you haven’t, it just means that the women around you are not talking to you about it. In fact, the women in Lebanon are not talking about rape at all.

Our anger at this horrible crime – understandable anger, human anger – should be towards rape…

Towards the backwards rape laws in Lebanon.

Rapists most often get off the hook. Women are blamed. I don’t have statistics because we don’t have studies. But I know of many cases. Most recently, a European woman was raped and beaten up by two young Lebanese men. I met her and I saw the scars and bruises. The men have posted bail and are now building a case to fight her allegations in court. Our law, Article 503 says a rapist can be acquitted if he marries the victim. He would often get a reduced sentence if he proposes marriage. The maximum sentence is 5 years. Husbands are excluded from this law if they rape their wives. Rape is interpreted as a penis penetrating a vagina. All other forms of sexual violence are not criminalized. This is the law the governs rape in Lebanon. This is the law we should revolt against.

Towards the police who never take rape complaints seriously.

Our police force is not trained to handle rape cases. They ask a woman what she was wearing and why she was where she was. They ask her if she is married. The forensic doctor examines her on the same bed where police officers sleep between shifts. That is if a woman is brave enough or has enough faith in the police to report rape. In one rape case that happened in the summer, a woman had to return to the police station 3 times before they finally wrote down her complaint and promised to investigate it.

Towards the municipalities who don’t provide enough lighting or protection.

Our streets are unsafe. Women are subject to sexual harassment on the streets – any street in any part of Lebanon – 24 hours a day. Lewd comments, stalking, following in a car, propositions for sex, groping, you name it, it happens 24 hours a day to almost every woman, young women especially, every day. And our protective measure, often, is to tell women not to be on that street, at that time, alone. It’s a stupid measure. What we need is municipalities to take sexual harassment seriously, to have enough security that punishes harassment, to have adequate lighting, to respond to complaints. Outside one university campus in Metn is a women’s dorm where men gather every night to harass every woman who enters and exits. They have complained to the university and the municipality and nothing was done about it. When we allow, as a society, sexual violence to be dismissed and joked about and belittled, we allow for rape to go unaddressed.

Towards the sexist culture that promotes the sexual objectification of women.

Women’s bodies are used, haphazardly and illogically, to sell just about anything. Selling taouk? Put a naked women on the ad. Selling a carpet? Put a naked woman on the ad. Selling a gadgets magazine? Put a naked woman on the cover. Everywhere we go, the image of the Lebanese woman we are promoting is one of sex and desire and objectification. There are often no heads on the bodies even, no people behind the bodies. In a media and advertising culture that promotes women as sex objects, how can we raise our girls to love and claim ownership over their own bodies? How can we raise our boys to not feel entitled to consume women’s bodies at their will? How can we call for the sexual liberation of women when we only understand sexual liberation as the commercial objectification of women?

Towards the silencing of women’s stories when they want to talk about rape.

It is extremely difficult for women (here and anywhere) to talk about rape. The shame, the self-blame, the guilt, the taboos, the excuses we give rapists first before we condemn them. In our country, we tell women not to get raped. We don’t tell men not to rape. When they do speak up, we either silence them to protect their “honor” or we ask them a million questions as if it were their fault. Rape is never a woman’s fault. We have not opened up the space, as a women’s movement and as a society, for women to come forward with rape stories and get the justice they deserve. We have not created the proper support systems to give them the services (legal, health, psychological, community support) they need. We have not taught our mothers and fathers to encourage their girls to always speak up, that nothing is taboo, that they must report sexual violence when it happens. We protect our girls by teaching them to always speak up. A woman can survive rape. She always does. Thousands of Lebanese women – your friends, your sisters, your colleagues – have survived rape. What traumatizes them is the guilt and shame they feel because you won’t listen to them or you will blame them or you will make them feel worthless.

Towards the excuses we give rapists.

Boys will be boys. Boys need to have sex, it’s a physiological need. He was her boyfriend, it’s her fault for dating him in the first place. He was turned on by her short skirt. He couldn’t control himself. She looks Russian, he thought she was a sex worker. He misunderstood her and thought she wanted it. She was too drunk. He was seduced by her eyes. She had kissed him so he assumed she wanted to have sex. A million excuses we will give men. Illogical, stupid excuses, all part of a system that won’t teach kids proper sex education but will justify sexual violence when it happens. A culture that equates men’s honor with honesty and nobility and courage and equates women’s honor with their vagina. We need to draw the firm line against all rape excuses, all justifications. We need to see men and women as equal sexual beings and demand the same levels of bodily autonomy for everyone. We need to treat everyone’s body – no matter what gender we attach to it – with dignity and respect.

All these misdirected hateful sentiments that have come out of Myriam’s attempted rape and murder, these racist feelings towards Syrian workers, these sectarian feelings, these vengeful feelings. We can understand the feelings. But we cannot condone how they are directed.

We honor Myriam’s memory by directing our anger at sexual violence. May she rest in peace and may the right justice be served. Fight rape.

You can find out more about this blogger and read more of her posts at http://www.nadinemoawad.com/

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