For 25 years Sahar has been living in fear.
From the beginning of her relationship with her husband, she knew something was very wrong. He was intensely jealous, self-centred and would lash out at her for no apparent reason. He and her family refused to let her end the relationship, however. She felt trapped and the emotional and physical abuse only got worse.
But it was the years of sexual violence – being routinely raped by her own husband – that has left her feeling “destroyed”, says the mother of two, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.
“The sexual abuse hurts me the most. I don’t love him. I hate him. I feel every time he is killing me,” she says. “This act is killing my humanity … He’s very aggressive and if I tell him he is hurting me he doesn’t care. If I push him a bit, he just increases the force.”
Sahar, who is in her 50s, says the years of severe abuse have left her all but broken.
“I see him as an animal,” she says.
But a coalition of Lebanese women’s groups is working to provide women like Sahar with greater protection against domestic violence.
Kafa – Arabic for “enough” – is among the organisations pushing for tough legislation to protect women from family violence, including the criminalisation of spousal rape.
Marital, or spousal, rape is non-consensual sex when the perpetrator is the victim’s spouse. It is illegal in more than 100 countries, but current Lebanese rape laws – just as in many other Arab states, including the UAE – do not apply to marital relationships.
“Rape is rape regardless of who commits it,” said Maya Ammar, Kafa’s media officer. “The penal law in Lebanon does not protect women from being raped by their husbands.”
The coalition began drafting the new law in 2007 in a bid to overhaul the way domestic violence is handled. Their draft bill called for special units to investigate cases of family violence, women to have the right to take out restraining orders against abusive family members and stipulated that medical professionals should be required to report what they believe was domestic violence. The bill was approved by the Lebanese cabinet in 2010, before moving to a parliamentary committee.
However, campaigners are now concerned about the extent to which the bill’s language has been diluted by the eight-member committee – seven men and one woman – reviewing the legislation.
A series of leaks from the committee and media reports have indicated that key provisions, including language that would criminalise marital rape, have been amended or removed.
Last December, one of the committee members, Imad Al Hout, told the Daily Star newspaper that “there’s nothing called rape between a husband and a wife. It’s called forcing someone violently to have intercourse”.
But it is not just the removal of key provisions in the draft that have supporters concerned. An article that would give precedence to religious courts in domestic violence cases was added by the cabinet before it even reached the committee – a move Ms Ammar described as the “one of most dangerous” changes to the draft.
Currently, family law falls under the jurisdiction of Lebanon’s 15 religious courts, which traditionally favour reconciliation and maintaining the family unit. Supporters of the initial legislation wanted the cases to be tried in civil court.
While the draft is still called the Law to Protect Women from Family Violence, Kafa said it has been extended to include men, children and the elderly. The group believes that the law’s strength had been in its specific provisions for the protection for women.
“You can make changes and amendments, but you cannot make horrendous amendments to the law that will distort it and also amendments that do not respect basic human rights,” said Ms Ammar.
Resistance to the initial version has come from conservative and religious groups, amid accusations that the law would undermine families. Pressure has been exerted from religious authorities including Lebanon’s highest Sunni body, Dar Al Fatwa, and the Shiite Higher Council.
The committee, which has been reviewing the bill since April last year, is now expected to issue its final draft within the next few weeks, and then put it to a parliamentary vote.
As the draft has appeared to falter, campaigners have tried to refocus attention on violence against women, particularly marital rape.
A researcher at the American University of Beirut, Jinan Usta, found in her studies that at least one third of Lebanese women had experienced some form of gender-based violence.
About 350 women seek help from Kafa each year. Most are victims of domestic violence. The organisation also found that between May 2010 and May 2011, 12 women were killed by their husbands in Lebanon.
The women’s groups involved in the campaign are determined to keep up the pressure. At a demonstration last Saturday in Beirut, a few dozen people, some dressed in black and carrying a coffin, marched in a mock funeral for a woman killed by her husband.
“It’s to make the parliament feel guilty about the death of women from family violence,” Ms Ammar said.