Story by Melanie Dostis
Women’s rights activists are rallying against a law in Jordan that allows rapists to marry their victims to avoid jail time for their crime.
Named Crime 308 after Article 308 of the Jordanian penal code, the campaign attacks what’s become known as the “marriage-rape law” – a relic of the Old Testament that declares a raped woman marred for life.
The flashpoint case in the campaign involved a 14-year old girl who was raped in a tent for three days in April by a 19-year-old boy. He was taken to jail and convicted. She was put into a holding cell for her protection, as rape victims from more rural regions are often in danger of being killed by their own relatives in an attempt to keep the family’s name honorable.
The girl in this case was soon released from her cell, but not because her attacker had been sentenced. Rather, she was given to him as his wife – signed over by her father to avoid the shame that comes with having a daughter who has engaged in premarital sex.
“308 should be changed. Maybe there was reason to it in the early days,” said Samir Abu Hamdiah, a legal consultant at the Justice Center for Legal Aid, a nonprofit organization near Rainbow Street offering legal aid to the underprivileged in Jordan. “In the current day, we as a region have to raise our voice, support this protest to make change, and to let the woman have a life.”
In Islam, it is required that women keep their virginity until they marry. To engage in sexual activity, even if it is forced, is to violate the teachings of the Quran, which is akin to a criminal act here for many.
The law does not specifically allow for honor crimes, but the penal system does not seriously dissuade attackers either. Murder is punishable by death in Jordan but reports of honor crimes resulting in lighter sentences are highly publicized. For example, last year a man convicted of killing his 16-year-old niece received only a 10-year sentence. The victim’s family urged leniency in what was initially a life sentence. His crime: He fired 30 machine-round shots at the girl after learning of her rape, killing her instantly.
A marriage between victim and attacker would have avoided that outcome, but at a terrible cost to the woman, experts say.
“He attacks her, he destroys her and then she is forced to marry him just because her parents are afraid of the scandal,” said Hadeel Maaitah, 39, a coordinator for the campaign and a lecturer on management at the Hashemite University. “This is the hush-hush culture we have here.”
Since forming Crime 308 this spring, the organizers of the campaign meet twice a month at Negresco, a modern villa-turned-restaurant and bar in the posh neighborhood of Jebel Weibdeh. They sit for hours at the outside patio to set out their goals and discuss the flood of messages they have received from others offering help.
Like so many social activist campaigns, the group launched a Twitter feed and Facebook group to trumpet its cause; since April, they’ve acquired 1,000 Facebook members and 145 Twitter followers. They’ve also created an online petition that so far has 2,000 signatures. Experts familiar with the case, as well as the cause, say they believe this sort of vociferous reaction is likely going to have an impact on the code that allows the practice. Their hope is that it could also have an impact on the attitudes behind it.
“Society needs to care more about its responsibilities. [The rape victim] should still be able to feel part of her society. Society needs to help her heal herself, physically and psychologically. It is their duty to help her overcome,” said Abu Hamdiah with JCLA.
What Abu Hamidiah calls for is not an easy task. In a conservative Islamic culture, women’s rights and desires are not emphasized or sometimes even recognized. Women can vote, but they are largely absent from the parliamentary and judicial processes. Even when committees are established on the parliamentary level to deal with women’s issues, there are often not any women in the group.
“The woman is not the priority. The victim is not the priority,” Abu Hamidiah said.
One of the most difficult things to change about the code is to get a country behind the idea that its behavior toward women is primitive and even barbaric.
“They thought the raped woman should be thankful to her abuser for marrying her, and not leaving her alone,” explained Iman Aqrabawi, gender-based violence-unit manager at the Jordan River Foundation, an organization aimed at the wellbeing of Jordanians and chaired by Queen Rania Al Abdullah.
Still today, women who have been raped are cast aside as “damaged goods,” said Juliana Turjman, the woman complaint office coordinator at the Jordanian National Commission Center for Women in Amman. “Even if she didn’t do anything wrong,” added Turjman, “she is blamed. She must have seduced him – that is why she is abused, is the thinking.”
Because she has to shoulder this, a rape victim has few options for recourse. She can hide the crime, which is the most common tack, experts say. She can try to prosecute her attacker, which will still bring shame on her family. His sentence could range from 15 years to death, depending on the age of the victim. Her sentence could likely be an indefinite stay in a jail cell to protect her from her own family’s murderous intentions. Today in Jordan, there are a dozen women in prison, waiting for when their fathers, uncles, brothers or cousins will no longer seek their death to preserve the family’s honor.
Or, she can marry him, which will both save her family’s honor and keep him out of jail. An attacker must remain married to his victim for five years to avoid his sentence. After that, whether he stays married or not, he has avoided all punishment.
Because the last option – the marriage – preserves the family’s honor, the preferred path is to force a marriage between the two, even if the victim is a young girl. “It is better for her to be seen as a divorced woman than a raped woman,” explained Maaitah.
In that case – if she’s under 18 – her father will have to sign a marriage license to give her away, according to Jordan law. This in particular angers activists.
“As parents, you want to search the world for the perfect man for your daughter. Why on earth would you trust her with him? [Her rape] is a not a hiccup in her life. Even if she is married, even if she gets divorced, she has still been raped,” said Maaitah, the 308 campaign activist.
While historical conventions dominate Jordan, rape specialist Salah Jaber, a legal consultant at the JCLA, said Campaign 308 has hit like a “bomb” and with the waves it has sent, it is only a matter of time until pressure builds on the government.
“We have to change it and make the punishment harder so men will have that in mind when they look at a girl and think of doing something,” said Jaber. “We have to protect the victim.”