Shop cleaner Nawal* from East Amman regrets the day she accepted an offer of extra work from her employer, who said he wanted her to clean his home. It was a trap; he took her home and raped her.
Although an investigation proved her allegations, she says the legal process did not bring justice. Her rapist benefited from controversial article 308 in Jordan's penal code, which allows rapists to escape jail if they marry their victims and stay with them for five years.
“Marrying a rape victim to her rapist is committing a second crime against her. It is the rapist who should be punished,” said Munir Idiabes, the executive director of Sisterhood Is a Global Institute (SIGI), a locally based women's rights group.
But some legal experts argue the article leaves women the choice not to marry their assailants.
“Women and their families do not have to accept it, and in some cases families demand the rapist is prosecuted,” Fawzi Al- Nahar, a judge and head of Jordan’s Grand Criminal Court, told IRIN. “It remains as an option for those who want to marry their daughters [off] and avoid the social stigma,” he said.
But women’s activists argue that women and their families may feel they have little choice. Their decision is influenced not only by social pressure to “cover a scandal” but also by difficulties brought about by other laws, especially those covering abortion and proof of parental lineage.
Dealing with the consequences
Nawal intended to keep quiet about the rape until the day she discovered she was pregnant. Most rape cases remain unreported unless there is pregnancy involved, say women's rights activists and social workers.
Abortion is prohibited in Jordan - even for rape survivors or in cases of incest - unless the pregnancy could lead to the mother's death.
“I started taking massive pain killers, vitamins, even tried punching my belly with my hands… pushing a gas cylinder on to my belly to abort the child,” she said. But after her efforts failed, she decided to report the incident to her family and the police.
The investigation and the results of a DNA test corroborated Nawal’s allegations, but rather than see her attacker punished, she found herself battling parental lineage laws.
To prove a child's parental lineage, the father's confession and a marriage contract are required, according to Judge Ashraf Omari from the Islamic Chief of Justice Department.
“Each case has its particularities, but in order to register a child with his father, a legal marriage contract is required,” said Omari.
“I had no choice but to marry him because I did not want to lose my child,” said Nawal. Children born out of wedlock are often removed from their mother’s care. They also face a lifetime of discrimination.
A small wedding ceremony took place, and the perpetrator escaped a jail sentence.
“I do not remember the party, because I did not care,” Nawal said. “All I had on my mind was the life sentence I was going to serve in the house where I was raped.”
Judge Fawzi Nahar, of the Grand Criminal Court, argues that marriage to one’s rapist is not a common occurrence in Jordan. He told IRIN that on average there are only six to 12 cases per year.
But in the past four years, some 159 rapists have escaped punishment through marriage, according to lawyer and activist Taghreed Al-Doghmi who recently published an investigation about the issue.
“Official numbers do not reflect reality, especially when it comes to issues regarding rape and sexual violence,” said Lubna Dawani of the Mezan Centre for Human Rights. “We come across several cases that go underreported.”
From 1998 to 2013, when gender-based violence expert Hani Jahshan servvied as a chief forensic physician at the state-run family protection unit, he says that only 20 to 25 percent of perpetrators of rape cases reported to them were prosecuted.
“Article 308 of the penal code is the major factor to blame,” he said. “It hampers all efforts to achieve justice for survivors of sexual violence.”
The law has no roots in Islam, according to Mahmoud Sartawi, professor of Sharia and Islamic Studies at the University of Jordan. “Islam does not endorse punishing the victim by forcing her to marry her rapist,” he told IRIN. “Rapists should be strictly penalized to protect the society from such crimes.”
Sartawi also says marriage in such circumstances does not meet the requirements of a “valid and genuine” marriage in Islam. “Approval is the basis of marriage in Islam. In this case [when women are married to their rapist], the victim and her family were forced into accepting this marriage, and the rapist is using the marriage to benefit,” he said.
Cultural and societal expectations that women and girls are “responsible” for preserving their family's honour is what makes the practice acceptable, although it has no religious roots, according to Eman Bisher, professor of education and women's leadership at the Applied Blaqaa University.
“In our society, it is still seen as shameful when there is any sexual activity by women and girls - even if it is by force. Social norms in this context rule,” she told IRIN.
The article, if not amended, will encourage more sexual violence against women and girls, she argues. “When the article was discussed in my class, some students noted that it is making it easy for young men to rape any woman they like and force the marriage onto her and her family,” she said.
Limited access to services, which many activists and aid workers describe as “inadequate”, makes it difficult for rape and sexual violence survivors to overcome the trauma.
“Women continue to suffer for years as the trauma is not addressed [in] the early stage,” says Amal Adli, a social worker at SIGI.
Psychological support and counselling remain challenging, says Hanan Thaher from the National Council for Family Affairs. “There are inadequate services that aim at providing psychosocial services for victims of rape and sexual violence,” said Thaher.
In rural areas, access to such services is even more limited. There is only one state-run shelter for women and children in Amman; the government is racing to build a second one in Irbid to accommodate growing needs provoked by the influx of Syrian refugees.
“We are stretched to the limit,” said Zain Abbadi, manager of Al Wifaq Family Centre in Amman. One-third of the 916 women benefiting from the services are Syrian, and 25 per cent of the remaining are refugee women of other nationalities.
Similar laws are also an issue in neighbouring countries, including Syria and Lebanon.
In Morocco, the parliament on 22 January repealed an article in its penal code allowing rapists to escape punishment if they marry victims who are minors.
The change came after two years of activism and a petition signed by one million people following the suicide of 16-year-old Amena Filali, who killed herself after she was forced to marry her rapist, who was reported to have severely beaten her during their short marriage.
“It is a complicated question where oppressive laws and societies interact against the rape of sexual survivors,” says Atifa Timjerdine, president of the Rabat branch of the Democratic Association for Moroccan Women.
The changes to Morroco’s law fell short of the expectations of many activists, who say the laws remain biased against women and supportive of child marriage. Still, campaigners in Jordan say it gives them hope to see change taking place in the region.
*Not a real name.