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Gender-based violence (GBV) affects at least 35 percent of women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), according to the World Bank. This figure, however, is considered an underestimation because GBV cases are frequently underreported. In a region where laws and social traditions largely favor men over women, COVID-19 has exacerbated pre-existing power imbalances. Since the outbreak began, GBV hotlines in Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Bahrain have seen a spike in the number of reported cases.
Feminist activist and journalist Mariam Yaghi at Sharika Wa Laken, an online feminist news platform, says that mental, verbal, emotional, and sexual assault have all escalated dramatically since the outbreak began. The problem is normalized by governments’ systematic oppression in denying women equal rights. Men become the most powerful players in a game that women are losing under such restrictive frameworks.
Although not standardized, the majority of MENA countries’ personal status laws are based on religious texts. Tunisia, on the other hand, is thought to have the most secular personal status laws, whilst Yemen maintains that all of its laws are based on Muslim Sharia law. These laws govern marriage, divorce, inheritance, and custody, and they are all based on patriarchal norms that assert women’s subordination to men.
Activists also point out that the lack of protective legislation exacerbates power disparities, leaving women vulnerable to antiquated misogynistic views and denying them the right to speak up and act. This has necessitated the efforts of non-governmental organizations to provide shelters, hotlines, and even financial and emotional support to victims of gender-based violence that should otherwise be supplied by governments.
“Violence has always existed in our communities, but the indefinite lockdowns posed new obstacles for women, particularly those wanting to flee violent settings. To retain its power, the patriarchy rests on three pillars: tradition, religion, and legislation,” Yaghi told Fanack.
Killing in the name of “honor”
In the MENA region, so-called honor killing, or the murder of a woman or girl by male family members in the name of maintaining the family’s honor by alleging that the victim has brought the family dishonor, is a widespread form of GBV. The Center of Information on the Rights of Women and Children in Algeria, for example, recorded at least 39 cases of murder or “intentional assault and battery” during the Covid-19 shutdown.
According to an Amnesty International report, comparable examples continue to be recorded in Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, and Palestine, where women are not only killed by close family members but random members of society for political reasons.
Hanan Al-Barassi, a Libyan lawyer, was assassinated in Benghazi in 2020 after condemning corrupt individuals linked to armed factions in Eastern Libya. This was preceded by a similar incident in Iraq where an activist known for organizing protests, Reham Yacoub, was fatally shot.
Activists point to a major flaw in MENA social norms, where some families prioritize reputation over justice, preferring to commit murder rather than face societal judgment, as in the case of Lilian Alawa, a Lebanese university professor, writer, poet, and mother of three who was killed by 30 bullets fired from a PKM machine gun on August 23, 2021. According to the forensic report, the bullets ripped her upper body to pieces, practically separating her legs from her torso, but no justice was served. Instead, her husband, brothers, brother-in-law, and nephew, who lured her to her death, are still at large.
Although this comes after the Lebanese parliament repealed Article 562 of the criminal code, which reduced the penalties for persons who claimed to have murdered female relatives to defend the family’s “honor,” it had little effect in actuality.
In Syria, while the law does not use the word “honor killings,” it does provide for exceptions if men are determined to have murdered a female family member for “illegitimate sex acts.”
A compounded crisis
According to feminist activist Maya Ammar, the rise in violence against women has been compounded by economic crises that have impacted numerous countries in the region. Patriarchal norms that assign men the role of sole financial providers have resulted in additional pressures.
“When this role is threatened by unemployment rates or the country’s financial instability, some men will feel compelled to vent their frustrations on what they consider to be a ‘headache’ or an additional responsibility, which is usually their wife or daughter,” Ammar said.
She went on to say that society perpetuates this behavior by not enforcing heavy penalties for men who commit acts of violence against women.
“There are several laws put in place to protect women that governments fail to implement correctly because it’s more beneficial for them to keep women disempowered. Patriarchy is built on the grounds of empowered men and submissive women, why would they change that?” she said.
According to KAFA, a Lebanon-based women’s rights organization, some judges deliberately rule against the law and in favor of abusers to avert financial hardships on family units. Such verdicts are regarded as economically sustainable in the absence of systems that would support women financially, despite the terrible toll they take on victims of abuse.
Marginalized women at more risk
According to Yaghi, some women are uninformed of their rights and would not consider reporting a crime to the police as a feasible option. “If violence is not correctly identified, it risks becoming effaced and accepted by society,” she said.
Because their rights are usually overlooked by governments in the region, queer women, refugee women, and migrant domestic workers face harsher mistreatment.
In refugee camps of northern Iraq, for example, the suffering of women and girls is muffled by societal rules that deems their testimonies against violence as “shameful.” As for female migrant workers, their destiny is tied to a sponsorship program called “Kafala” that is implemented in most Arab countries. Kafala allows the sponsor full control over the worker, thus facilitating the risk of labor exploitation, deportation and overall increased cases of violence.
The LGBTQ+ community on the other hand, suffers from employment discrimination and relies heavily on NGOs and donations to seek temporary shelter and financial support.
Both Ammar and Yaghi agree that further efforts are needed to overcome patriarchal attitudes. Change, according to Ammar, is a cumulative process that can be accelerated by younger generations exposed to more information about women’s rights and subjected to fewer traditional gender norms. According to Yaghi, men must use their personal resolve to attend training and seminars that emphasize the necessity of gender equality.
“Older generations may be accepting of some new feminist notions but their scope of change is limited. Our hope is on the younger generation. But of course, whether this creates impact is something that remains to be seen,” Ammar said.