The wave of protest movements that broke out in the Middle East in 2011 helped mobilize all sectors of society to varying degrees across the region. While these movements opened the door to far-reaching social and political changes, they have generally had a limited impact on structures of power in most Middle Eastern and North African countries, at least thus far. Still, people continue to mobilize for change, with various initiatives relating to women’s rights finding notable success along the way.
Since the uprisings, for example, women’s rights advocates, including parliamentarians, grassroots activists, and rights organizations, have played a leading role in repealing or amending (largely) colonial-era laws in their countries’ legal codes, which protect rapists from criminal prosecution if they married their victim for a specified period of time.
In January 2014, Morocco’s parliament unanimously amended Article 475 of the penal code, which allowed rapists to dodge legal accountability if they married their victims. In August 2017, Jordan’s parliament voted to scrap Article 308, which also created marriage loopholes for rapists, while Lebanon’s parliament repealed a similar exoneration law around the same time. In July 2017, Tunisia introduced new laws criminalizing violence against women and removing the country’s own marry-your-victim provision (Article 227).
Nevertheless, similar laws continue to be defended in the region on the grounds that marriage can protect women from social ostracization and preserve their “reputation and esteem” following a rape. Indeed, provisions of these kind are still on the books in several countries in the MENA region, including Algeria, Bahrain, and Kuwait
While Iraq also has a marriage-rape law, its time may be numbered. Inspired by developments in other Arab countries, in 2017, Member of Parliament (MP) Intisar al-Jubory (Nineveh) submitted a proposal, with the support of 66 MPs, to repeal Article 398 of the Iraqi penal code (No. 111/1969). While Article 396 states that rape or sexual assault is punishable by a term of imprisonment, Article 398 states that all legal investigation, procedures, and charges becomes void if the offender “lawfully marries the victim.” As with other provisions of this kind, the law forces victims into a permanent relationship with their abusers. A coalition of activists and local rights organizations, including The Iraqi Women’s League and Baghdad Women Association, are currently mobilizing civil society, judges, and parliamentarians to demand that the Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, Salim al-Jubori, immediately call for a vote to repeal the law ahead of the 2018 parliamentary elections in May.
To be sure, the campaign faces an uphill battle. While Iraqi women once enjoyed “some of the highest levels of rights protection and social participation” in the region, sanctions imposed on Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990 destroyed the economy, stunted the state’s administrative capacity, and forced the majority of Iraqis into poverty. Women’s involvement in the labor force and public life eroded, as a result. As sociologist Zahra Ali explained in an article for Jadaliyya, this is because sanctions “destroyed the sectors on which women mainly relied: public infrastructure and services, social, education, and health systems.” The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 only made things worse.
While the U.S. attempted to justify its invasion using a rhetoric of “democratization” and women’s empowerment, the actual political and institutional space for women shrunk even more because of the American attack on and occupation of Iraq. The U.S. invasion triggered state collapse, and with it, the rapid growth of a “hyper-patriarchy” fueled by the proliferation of extremist militias, the growing strength of conservative political forces, and an overall backlash against feminist politics that came to be associated with U.S. imperial power.
Indeed, the decimation of Iraqi institutions led to an atmosphere of increasing violence and lawlessness. This created an imperative for restoring authoritarian governance and enforcing social order, which has been expressed primarily through a turn to social conservatism and traditional forms of association like the family, neighborhood, religion, and clan.
For the conservative Islamist parties currently dominating the central Iraqi government, women’s rights have not been a concern, let alone a priority, especially as the state has struggled to recuperate from the war against ISIS. Still, with a long history of political activism behind them, Iraqi women remain a potent political force. With mass support and regional momentum on their side, their efforts to repeal the rape-marriage law through protracted civil struggle may succeed, sooner rather than later.