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On Saturday, April 22, 2017, activists in Lebanon displayed their latest protest against the controversial Article 522, which allows rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims. A proposal to revoke Article 522 will go before Parliament on May 15 and would increase the minimum prison sentence for rapists from five years to seven years.
In order to raise pressure on members of Parliament, women’s rights activists in Lebanon displayed thirty-one wedding dresses hanging from nooses in the capital city, Beirut. According to Alia Awada, the advocacy manager of the local NGO, ABAAD, “there are thirty-one days in a month and every single day, a woman may be raped and forced to marry her rapist.” Awada also told reporters, “we are trying as much as we can to shed light on this issue and tell parliament that the time has come for them to vote on cancelling Article 522.” The dresses were designed by Lebanese artist Mireille Honein and were originally displayed in Paris before moving to the sea shore of Beirut. Honein described making the dresses and claimed she used paper “to highlight the ephemeral of marriage and of laws.” Around the dresses, activists from ABAAD, who started the grassroots campaign to repeal Article 522, encouraged people to sign petitions for Parliament. This protest follows the December demonstration, where activists stood in front of Parliament in bloody wedding dresses. The December protest successfully pressured Parliament into taking the first steps into repealing Article 522.
Some people though are doubtful that the repealing of Article 522 will actually change Lebanese society. Article 522 was originally meant to protect girls because non-virgins were seen as unmarriageable. Many families pressure girls, particularly virgins, into marrying their rapists to avoid the shame of premarital sex. This has long lasting impacts. According to ABAAD senior programmer Roula Masri, “there’s the psychological trauma. Victims usually have to undergo therapy. They may feel that sex is disgusting … Usually, the victims, the girls, are obliged [to marry their rapist] by family members. They would blame you, and they would push the marriage forward, to save the family’s honor.” The stigma around rape in Lebanon and surrounding areas also pressures women into remaining silent about their sexual assaults. Many believe that these attitudes will continue to exist whether Article 522 is law or not. According to Naziha Baassiri, a fashion student in Beirut, “women also shame other women; they are not supportive. All these values are entrenched in society and family … this goes way beyond someone signing off on a societal law.”
Activists acknowledge that the repeal of Article 522 will not solve attitudes about rape in Lebanon. Saja Michael, an activist in ABAAD, admits, “it’s a social issue that must be addressed. We will continue to work with parents, helping to differentiate the act of rape as a crime. Rapists should be punished, that’s what we’re aiming for.” Activists have already outlined their next goals for reform and women’s rights in Lebanon, including an overhaul of sexual education, repealing of adultery laws, and advocating for abortion access. Their priority though remains the continued pressure for Parliament to repeal this outdated law, which the Minister for Women’s Affairs, Jean Oghassabian calls “from the Stone Age.”
If the law is repealed, it might not change attitudes towards rape in Lebanon. It will, however, show the power of peaceful protest and grassroots organizing as a means of social change. Though activists will have to wait until May for a verdict, they will continue to call for the repeal of Article 522 with the haunting image of paper wedding dresses blowing in the wind.