Profile: Zoya Rouhana. Criminalising Violence Against Women
by Georgia Hanias and Angie Zambarakji
“I can’t recall a time when there wasn’t discrimination against women in Lebanon,” says 55 year-old human rights activist Zoya Rouhana. “As a little girl growing up in Beirut I remember that boys were treated differently. They were allowed to play outside and go to the cinema while the girls looked out the window. Boys were always given opportunities and made to feel special while neighbours cried in disappointment when a girl was born into the family – as if it was a tragedy.”
Rouhana was lucky. Raised by progressive parents, she was encouraged to get involved in women’s rights and to arm herself with a good education. After graduating from the American University in Beirut she became inspired by the activism she witnessed during the civil war and decided to devote her life to protecting women against violence.
Today Rouhana is the director of KAFA (Enough) Violence and Exploitation, a Lebanese women’s rights organisation that works directly with victims of violence. KAFA offers legal and social counseling and advice. It also pushes for legal reforms to protect women from their abusers. Over 300 cases a year come through KAFA’s door but Rouhana suspects there are a lot more women who need KAFA’s help but are either too scared to approach the organisation or believe its culturally inappropriate to seek help outside the family.
“Lebanon is not as liberal as the west perceives it,” explains Rouhana, “From a superficial level it seems a progressive and secular country but we are a conservative nation that is bound by religion and traditions.“
Within this cultural environment, civil courts have no autonomy over religious leaders in matters of personal status and sectarian family laws offer little protection for women.
“Lebanon’s legal system is based on civil law but personal status falls under the jurisdiction of religious sects, which is a challenge since there are 18 religious sects. Sixteen of them have their own laws and courts that deal with marriage, divorce and child custody,” says Rouhana. “We can’t interfere with any of these religious laws at the moment and some religious authorities won’t criminalise violence against women because they view it as a private matter that must be dealt with by the parties involved.”
Most women have no financial power to fight or leave their partners and they automatically lose all custody rights when a child reaches a certain age after divorce- even if the father is abusive.
“The odds are stacked against women so very few cases go to court,” says Rouhana. “There’s a big gap between the rights of women and rights of men in the personal status laws – the only way to reduce it is through our proposed legislation.”
Rouhana and other campaigners have drafted a bill to criminalise family violence, including rape within marriage. It proposes the appointment of public prosecutors to investigate cases of family violence and to allow women to seek restraining orders against abusers. It also advises civil courts to independently handle domestic abuse cases.
Parliament is currently deliberating the bill and religious leaders and conservative politicians are fiercely opposed to it. Others have introduced drastic amendments that would make the law unhelpful to women.
“The bill is now being modified to give Lebanon’s main religious authorities overriding power over civil courts and to ensure men have more protection against women’s claims. If it passes with these changes the rights of victims will be weakened,” says Rouhana.
KAFA has fought back and has managed to preserve some aspects of the original bill, including the title of the law. “The parliamentary committee wanted to remove the word “women” in the title but we launched a public campaign to keep it in since the point of the legislation is about protecting women from violence,” says Rouhana. “The committee also didn’t want to criminalise martial rape because they didn’t believe that rape could occur between a man and his wife. Again, we fought a public battle on the subject and were able to reintroduce the issue.”
These achievements are milestones but there are many other details in the legislation that needs to be upheld if it’s going to be of any help to women. And until Lebanon passes a law that empowers victims of abuse, KAFA’s leader will continue to give the powerless a voice and lobby for more public support. “You can either stay home and hide or find a way to improve a situation,” says Rouhana. “I choose to help.”
Georgia Hanias and Angie Zambarakji are freelance journalists