An assessment of domestic violence in the Middle East shared between a persistent patriarchal conservatism and timid feminist advances
February 8, 2021
Written by Léa Bouvattier
Translated by Jean-Louis Scarsi
Amnesty International’s 2019 report provides a grim assessment of domestic violence, both in its numbers and its treatment. This article aims to observe the current legal systems in the countries of the Middle East and the Maghreb and the legislative tools available and to question the structural causes allowing these violence to flourish. Reflecting upon the perception of such violence by these societies, highlighting the situation of the victims, trying to give them a voice and a place, are all avenues of reflection addressing this broad subject of domestic violence, an unfair phenomenon and above all dangerous for those who are affected: women.
Domestic violence is firmly entrenched in the region’s societies
In 2009, 62.8% of women aged 18 to 64 in Morocco are victims of gender violenceSalima Massoui and Michaël Séguin, « Enquêter sur la violence conjugale au Maroc : les défis d’un féminisme intersectionnel du positionnement », Recherches qualitatives, vol. 39, no … Continue reading. Of these, 55% have experienced domestic violence. How is this violence treated and how are the victims treated? This legitimate question is confronted with a number that is as edifying as it is worrying: 3% of violence is reported to the authoritiesHuman rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Review of 2019, Amnesty International, February 18, 2019, available on: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde01/1357/2020/en/. This phenomenon is unfortunately not an isolated case in the Middle East region. The figures speak for themselves: in Egypt between one third and two thirds of women and girls are victims of domestic and family violenceEgypte : violences contre les femmes, Amnesty International, January 21, 2015, available on: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde12/0004/2015/fr/, while in Iraq«Iraq: Urgent Need for Domestic Violence Law », Human Rights Watch, 22 April 2020, available on: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/22/iraq-urgent-need-domestic-violence-law., Human Rights Watch recorded between 2006 and 2007, 1/5 of Iraqi women victims of domestic violence, 36% of whom say they have suffered psychological violence from their husbands. That is how illustrate this issue.
These figures set out, justified and endorsed by a complacent legal system with regard to such violence reveal the weight of normative injunctions within those societies that enshrine male dominance as a universal rule. Indeed, in Morocco, manhood and domination go hand in hand, there is real social pressure on this obligation of manhood, which inevitably comes about through the domination of women, both physical and psychological. Their influence over the Criminal Code, personal status laws, and family laws give women an underage status, who are restricted to the private sphere, and bound to obey their husbands which in exchange for an economic guarantee is granted numerous rights over them.
It now seems legitimate to question the treatment of such violence, and in particular the legal and judicial treatment. The annual reports issued by Amnesty International provide a relevant overview of the situation. As an example, take the year 2019. In 2019, in Kuwait, there was still no legislation criminalizing domestic violence. In Iran, gender-based violence is not considered a criminal offense. In Qatar, there is little legislation to protect women from gender-based violence, making it difficult for them to get a divorce. While in Saudi Arabia, women who are victims of domestic violence must always obtain permission from a guardian to leave the place where the violence took place, where the guardian often happens to be the perpetrator.
Some of the countries residing in the Middle East region, have established explicitly degrading laws against women. Some laws which perpetuate violence while endorsing it. Until January 2014 in Morocco, the article 475 of the Penal CodeHuman rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Review of 2019, Amnesty International, February 18, 2019, available on: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde01/1357/2020/en/ acquitted the kidnapper of a minor girl charged with rape, provided he married her. This article was an effective loophole, resolving the majority of cases of rape in marriages, to the detriment of the physical and mental health of the victim. Similar phenomena can be observed in Iraq, where article 41 of the Criminal Code provides for the right to punish his wife “within certain limits prescribed by Islamic law (Shari’a), by law or by custom((Iraq: Decades of suffering, Now women deserve better, Amnesty France, 22 February 2005, p.26. Available on: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde14/001/2005/en/))”, while in the United Arab Emirates in 2010, this right is granted, by article 53 of the Criminal CodeNazeeha Said, « Golfe. Ces violences quotidiennes contre les femmes – Malgré la lente évolution des législations ». Orient XXI, 10 January 2019. Available on: … Continue reading, provided that no visible physical marks of such violence are left.
Thus, this violence, structurally rooted in norms, religious beliefs, laws and customs, are all instruments mobilized to justify a relationship of subordination of women and the validity of patriarchal institutions, making women objects whose sexual and social behavior can be con- trolled. This system of oppression of women, helps to trivialize and obscure the gender violence of which they are victims, which explains why in Egypt there are no official figures on domestic violence, while complaints of women are minimized, often conditioned to the humiliating execution of a virginity test, or even categorically refused.
The situation of victims facing shame and stigmatization
In the face of the violence suffered by these women, it seems natural to question the effective- ness of a judicial system that is supposed to protect these victims, on the spot to which these women can claim in the public space. But do they already have access to this judicial system? The moral solitude surrounding the victims, the shame associated with acts of sexual violence, represent significant obstacles making the liberation of speech in society difficult, if not impossible. The fear of being abused during police interrogations, as well as the stigmatization that emerges from the dissemination of the interrogation in the public space, contribute more to reinforcing the guilt of women, a burden accumulated to the shame of “letting themselves be raped, violated, assaulted”, than to creating a climate of trust, where the victim’s liberating speech would be king.
Judicial systems are primarily aimed at reducing violence and obstructing the speech of victims. While this may seem radical at first, the justification in the Iraqi penal code for murder on “honorable grounds”«Iraq: Urgent Need for Domestic Violence Law », Human Rights Watch, 22 April 2020, available on: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/22/iraq-urgent-need-domestic-violence-law, can only be seen as a normalization of violence in society. This is all the more worrying, particularly for women victims of gender-based violence, when one considers the failures in 2019 and 2020 to pass a bill against domestic viole
nce in the Iraqi Parliament. In Kuwait, it is possible for victims to lodge complaints and to report the violence in hospital.
However, the deep-rooted solidarity within the police, which is mainly composed of men marked by these norms of violence, generalizes a discriminatory procedure towards these victims: the signature of a contract of engagement. The mechanism of the contract of engagement simplifies all legal proceedings and requires only a signature from the aggressor stating in writing that this will not happen again with the woman being sent back to the marital home. Widespread recruitment contracts overshadow the damage to the reputation of the family and husband, who are often the aggressors in domestic violence. Sad irony.
This explains why domestic violence is perceived as legitimate and justified, under a husband’s right to punish his wife and to exercise control over her, in accordance with the sacred dogmatism of patriarchy. This process of normalizing violence has consequences for the women who are victims, who themselves can internalize these gender norms even when they harm them.The weight of society, stigmatizing, marginalizing these victims, the weakness or even the lack of structures to help the victims, revealing the small scale of these issues in local and national political considerations, contribute to the guilt of these women, who can only feel ashamed, guilty, justifying their own fate as abused women.
Changing legal and legislative treatment with mixed results
Progress within the various countries of the Middle East region has recently emerged. This progress seems to be the starting point for the recognition and fair and conscientious treatment of domestic violence. For example, in Lebanon in 2014Massena, Florence, ‘Violences contre les femmes au Liban : une évolution lente entre la loi et la réalité” (published on Terriennes on the 31 March 2015), Club de Mediapart, … Continue reading, a law on domestic violence was enacted, while the year 2003 was marked by the promotion of the new Family Code in Morocco . The new code was seen as a fundamental step forward in the area of gender violence as it recognizes the principle of gender equality. The Code legalizes consensual divorce, thus closes the humiliating and discriminating against women repudiation. But, while it looks good on paper, the results are certainly nuanced. The new Labor Code, promoted in Morocco in 2003, contrasts with the 55% rate of domestic violence between 2009 and 2010Massoui, Salima, et Michaël Séguin, ” Enquêter sur la violence conjugale au Maroc : les défis d’un féminisme intersectionnel du positionnement”, Recherches qualitatives, … Continue reading as well as with article 475 of the Penal Code, both mentioned above, and still in force after 2003. The Lebanese law of 2014 does not clearly define the term “domestic violence”, preferring the term “conjugal right by forceMassena, Florence, ‘Violences contre les femmes au Liban : une évolution lente entre la loi et la réalité” (published on Terriennes on the 31 March 2015), Club de Mediapart, … Continue reading”, thereby minimizing the scope of these acts, placing the victims in a real situation of physical and psychological distress. Moreover, the law requires that convictions be based solely on physical evidence, thereby en- trenching a restrictive view of domestic violence while making it difficult to criminalize it.
With a plethora of examples, Iraq is following the path of its regional partners, endorsing the authority of custom from the previously mentioned Article 41. Therefore, possibilities of justification and minimization of these violences are extended. To complete the round of these misguided reforms, we can mention the example of Bahrain, a small state in the region, which, with the intention of complying with the recommendations of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), enacted a law against violence against women in 2015. If the definition of domestic violence were not lacking, if mechanisms for punishing domestic violence were introduced, and if there were sanctions against the perpetrators, this would be a real success.
In Iran, in 2019, gender-based violence is not considered a criminal offense which would lead to sanction and reparation. At the same time, both in Saudi Arabia and Oman, domestic violence is not recognized by lawSaid, Nazeeha, « Golfe. Ces violences quotidiennes contre les femmes – Malgré la lente évolution des législations », Orient XXI, 10 January 2019. Available on: … Continue reading. Despite these sad findings, the emergence of hope is not totally dashed, as reflected in recent legal and legislative developments. That is why these timid developments are not enough to call into question the phenomena of concealing, trivializing and justifying domestic violence. The private sphere remains a potentially cursed sphere for women victims of their husbands’ dominant violence. Paradoxically, these efforts serve to reinforce these injustices, which cannot be erased by careful reform.
The emergence of feminist resistance within these societies
Fortunately, feminist resistance is organized within these societies. Since the 1980s, we can ob- serve the emergence of a liberal, egalitarian feminism based on CEDAW. But liberal feminism was challenged in the 1990s by a rising Islamic feminism, claiming unity against a liberal feminism accused of universalization with neocolonialist undertones. In 2007, the British government established National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group, elevating the role of women in the deconstruction of stereotypes, whether towards women within their own community, or within society toward a stigmatized and prejudiced vision of Islam. This reveals the transformative potential of women, whom can initiate change if they have the opportunity, whether personal and/or societal, to control their own destiny.
In the continuity of this identity feminism, the emergence in the 1970s of an orthodox feminism wants to remove women from the traditional and normative constraint in which their religious community has locked them. This constraint justifies the exercise of control and violence against them, as well as the reproductive constraint on them, women with the mission of re-settlement of the sacred land. Although the rule of law in Israel has been composed of a law on gender equality since 1951, the law seems primarily symbolic.
Take the example of divorce, in Israel, access by women remains a difficult path within the Orthodox communities. If the husband does not grant the “gett”, meaning divorce, of his own will, then the marriage cannot be broken and the wife remains condemned to be anchored in this marriage, dependent on her husband, without having other possibilities of remarriage or even simple sexual relations, without taking the risk of being accused of adultery. The 2003 conference of the KolechMeaning “your voice” in Hebrew Association, bringing together Orthodox feminists, illustrates this mobilization, which aims to highlight the violence and harassment suffered by women in this community. For examplePouzol, Valérie, « Entre s ilence et fracas : émergence et affirmation des luttes féministes dans les communautés juives orthodoxes en Israël (1970-2009) », Le Mouvement Social, vol. 231, … Continue reading, in 2008, the streets of Jerusalem and ultra-Orthodox towns were invaded by brigades of morals, further pushing the logic of control and subordination of women in society.
Progress on issues relating to sexual and domestic violence in the countries of the Middle East and the Maghreb is not a uniform and unequivocal phenomenon. Some progress in the texts lacks practical concretization while other activist demands lack concrete legal and political concreteness. These mobilizations wishing to resist and put an end to this situation of guardianship, domination of women, being violated, marginalized and forgotten, are not without limits. The division between different feminist mobilizations, as illustrated by the feminist-liberal/identity rift, can only hinder solidarity and unity, the guarantee of a structured and effective resistance. However, these limits can be nuanced because they do not appear inevitable. Fortunately, despite this meager record, with little hope in sight, optimism is not completely dashed, leaving open the possibility of thinking of a society where the term “domestic violence” is only an anachronism.
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To cite this article : Léa Bouvattier, “An assessment of domestic violence in the Middle East shared between the persistence of patriarchal conservatism and timid feminist advances”, February 8, 2021, Gender Institute in Geopolitics
|↑1||Salima Massoui and Michaël Séguin, « Enquêter sur la violence conjugale au Maroc : les défis d’un féminisme intersectionnel du positionnement », Recherches qualitatives, vol. 39, no 1 (2020): 107. Available on: https://doi.org/10.7202/1070018ar|
|↑2, ↑5||Human rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Review of 2019, Amnesty International, February 18, 2019, available on: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde01/1357/2020/en/|
|↑3||Egypte : violences contre les femmes, Amnesty International, January 21, 2015, available on: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde12/0004/2015/fr/|
|↑4||«Iraq: Urgent Need for Domestic Violence Law », Human Rights Watch, 22 April 2020, available on: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/22/iraq-urgent-need-domestic-violence-law.|
|↑6||Nazeeha Said, « Golfe. Ces violences quotidiennes contre les femmes – Malgré la lente évolution des législations ». Orient XXI, 10 January 2019. Available on: https://orientxxi.info/magazine/golfe-ces-violences-quotidiennes-contre-les-femmes,2846|
|↑7||«Iraq: Urgent Need for Domestic Violence Law », Human Rights Watch, 22 April 2020, available on: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/22/iraq-urgent-need-domestic-violence-law|
|↑8, ↑10||Massena, Florence, ‘Violences contre les femmes au Liban : une évolution lente entre la loi et la réalité” (published on Terriennes on the 31 March 2015), Club de Mediapart, available on: https://blogs.mediapart.fr/florence-massena/blog/310315/violences-contre-les-femmes-au-liban-une-evolution-lente-entre-la-loi-et-la-realite-publie-sur|
|↑9||Massoui, Salima, et Michaël Séguin, ” Enquêter sur la violence conjugale au Maroc : les défis d’un féminisme intersectionnel du positionnement”, Recherches qualitatives, vol. 39, no. 1|
|↑11||Said, Nazeeha, « Golfe. Ces violences quotidiennes contre les femmes – Malgré la lente évolution des législations », Orient XXI, 10 January 2019. Available on: https://orientxxi.info/magazine/golfe-ces-violences-quotidiennes-contre-les-femmes,2846|
|↑12||Meaning “your voice” in Hebrew|
|↑13||Pouzol, Valérie, « Entre s|
ilence et fracas : émergence et affirmation des luttes féministes dans les communautés juives orthodoxes en Israël (1970-2009) », Le Mouvement Social, vol. 231, no. 2, 18 June 2010, pp. 29-43