Last December, at the end of this eventful year, a new wave of protest filled the streets of Tunis following a court decision made on the 13th of December in Kef, a city situated in the North-East of Tunisia. The judge used the article 227bis of the Tunisian penal code to approve of the marriage of a 13-year-old girl to her rapist who is 20 years old and, as it turned out, the brother of her brother-in-law. The marriage took place in the presence and with the permission of their parents. The girl was pregnant at the time. The article in question stipulates that while sex with a girl under 15 without the use of force is punishable by six years in prison, the culprit can halt proceedings by marrying the victim. The chief aim of this article is traditionally to preserve the family’s honor by protecting the girl and her family of the shame of pre-marital sex, as well as a possible pregnancy. This act of “protection” is a second trauma for the victims, as they are given to their rapists to marriage by their own family.
The proceedings caused an uproar among organizations concerned with children’s rights in the country. Activists, both in Tunisia and abroad, have spoken out against the implementation of this article and the government has been pressured to amend it ever since. Even the Tunisian ministry of Women’s Affairs, Family and Children released a statement saying they were deeply concerned by the decision, adding that it had been trying to annul the marriage “for the sake of the child’s interest. It also pressured the parliament to speed up the process of adopting a bill to counter violence against women, which had been proposed in 2014 but is still waiting to be discussed. This bill would put an emphasis on gender-based violence, covering psychological and economic harm in both the public and domestic spheres. Marital rape would be outlawed and the implementation of the article 227bis would become illegal.
Among the reactions to the marriage of the pregnant 13-year-old to her rapist, there was also Lila Pieters, the representative of UNICEF in Tunisia who called for the amendment of this article.
Especially interesting is the fact that at approximately the same time this wave of protest took place in Tunisia, a similar campaign took place in Lebanon calling for the abolition of the article 552 of the Lebanese penal code, which – just like the article 227bis in Tunisia – shields rapists from prosecution on the condition that they marry their victim. The Twitter campaign called #Undress552 caught worldwide attention and made a significant impact on the Lebanese government.
In response to this, members of the Parliamentary Committee for Administration and Justice announced an agreement to repeal article 522 of the Lebanese Penal Code. Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri expressed his support for the measure on Twitter, and the proposed reform, once officially confirmed by the committee, went to the full Lebanese parliament for review.
Laws like these are, however, rather common throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Countries that still retain such provisions include Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Palestine, and Syria.
Up until recently, Tunisia was part of this list of countries. But in reaction to the widespread mobilization, the Tunisian government announced the amendment of article 227bis this Thursday, February 2. The new law concerning the rape of minors stipulates that the rapist will be punished with 20 years up to life imprisonment in the case of recidivism. Furthermore, a new article will be added, which will ban the rapist to approach the victim up to a certain distance. This is a significant victory for women’s rights in which strong activism of Tunisian organizations played a huge role.
Jordan is, also, said to be considering the abolition. Bahrain approved the abolition of its article (353) in May 2016. The proposed reforms intend to prevent rapists from escaping prosecution by marrying their victims and it is expected that other countries will follow their suit.
The campaigns held both in Lebanon and in Tunisia advocate that protecting honor should be about ensuring that attackers are punished and promote social attitudes that support survivors of sexual violence instead of stigmatizing them.
In the light of this recent victory, it seems that non-violent resistance, civil disobedience, sit-ins, and strikes have become more successful throughout the MENA region ever since the beginning of the so-called Arab spring. The wave of protest against rape laws all over the region during the past year has made an impact with the help of international organizations which put additional pressure on the governments in question and the international attention it got through the media. Even though just the beginning, this victory in Tunisia achieved through civil resistance should be seen as a significant progress in the domain of women’s rights.
“Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.”
- Martin Luther King, Jr., The Quest for Peace and Justice