Gruesome billboards of a woman in a bloodied and torn bridal gown appeared around Beirut recently, captioned in Arabic: “A white dress doesn’t cover up rape.”
This spring, a women’s rights group, Abaad, hung similarly defiled gowns along the city’s famous seaside promenade.
Such provocative public awareness campaigns are part of a new push in Lebanon and across the Middle East to repeal longstanding laws that allow rapists to avoid criminal prosecution if they marry their victims.
In 2014, Morocco repealed a provision that allowed convicted rapists to evade punishment by marrying their victims.
Parliamentary votes are expected as early as this summer here in Lebanon and in Jordan after government committees in both places recommended repealing similar exemptions for both the accused and the convicted.
Any change would come too late for Basma Mohamad Latifa, whose family said she was raped three years ago in a village in southern Lebanon by a man more than twice her age.
Her family did not go to the police, making a deal not to file charges in exchange for her marrying him.
In June, just after the middle-of-the-night Ramadan meal, the man went to Ms. Latifa’s brother’s house, where she was staying, and shot her nine times.
She died, at age 22.
Experts attribute the traction of the movement to repeal these laws to a steady expansion of women’s education in the region and a new kind of public activism spurred by social media, in which advocates have sometimes pushed the envelope with stunts like the bloodied gowns.
Wafa Bani Mustafa, a member of Parliament in Jordan and a leading proponent of repeal, said only a change in the law could drive change in social norms.
Without repeal, she argued, “the state of impunity will continue, and the interest of the family will be put ahead of the victim’s right to justice.”
In Turkey, the government proposed last November to exonerate around 3,000 men accused of statutory rape if they married their victims and were not accused of using physical force.
But so much public outcry followed that the plan was scrapped.
Opposition to the push to repeal the marry-your-rapist laws has been far more muted than that to other demands made by women’s groups, including criminalizing marital rape and granting women the right to pass on their nationality to their children.
But the impact the prospective changes in the rape laws would have on the lives of ordinary women in the Arab world is a matter of debate among women’s rights advocates.
On top of the shame that attaches itself to rape, women’s advocates say, rape survivors in many countries do not always trust law enforcement authorities to address their cases seriously.
And so marriage deals are often made in private without criminal charges being filed.
If the Lebanese law is repealed, it will be “a moral victory,” said Maya Ammar, a spokeswoman for Kafa, a Lebanese group that works with domestic violence survivors.
More survivors will have to file charges, she said, instead of settling it privately.
“These are cases that are not discussed in public,” she said. “They all happen in silence.”
In Morocco, the issue drew public attention only after a 16-year-old girl committed suicide in 2012 after being forced to marry the man she said had raped her.
Her father said a state prosecutor had urged the accused to marry her in return for the charges to be dropped.
The death of the girl, Amina Filali, who swallowed rat poison, prompted public outrage.
Two years later, the government amended the country’s rape law, eliminating a provision that had allowed a man convicted of statutory rape to escape punishment if he married his underage victim.
New York Times