The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jordan moves to repeal law allowing rapists to escape punishment by marrying victim

Activists from the Lebanese gender equality NGO Abaad (Dimensions), dressed as brides and wearing injury patches, hold a protest in downtown Beirut on Dec. 6, 2016. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)

The stories are awful — one woman says she was just 20 when her 55-year-old boss slipped her two pills he said would make her headache better. Instead, she lost consciousness. When she woke up, she was naked. And, she quickly realized, she had been raped.

“I couldn't tell my family what had happened. I cried and cried not knowing what to do,” the woman told women's rights campaign group Equality Now. “At that moment, I realized that my family will be devastated.”

She only found the courage to report the crime once she realized she was pregnant.  Then, though, her attacker offered a devil's bargain: He would marry her. In Jordan, rapists who married their victims and stayed with them for at least three years were not punished.

“With all the hatred I have in my heart, my family forced me to marry him so as to save the 'family's honor,' " she told the group. She's divorced now, and her ex-husband refused to recognize the baby as his own.

In another case, a 14-year-old girl was kidnapped from a mall, driven out to the desert, then raped repeatedly for three days. The assailant then agreed to marry her  to avoid jail time.

Rules like this exist across the Middle East, and women's groups have been working assiduously for decades to get them revoked. Finally, in Jordan, it looks like they may have won.

Last week, the country's cabinet voted to scrap the law, known as Article 308. Now, that decision must be approved by Parliament.

“This article of the law not only helps perpetrators walk free, it rewards them by allowing them to marry their victims,” Jordanian Women's Union member Nadia Shamrukh told AFP. “By applying this law, another crime is committed. How can this 14-year-old girl, who is a minor anyway, marry her rapist? Can you imagine this?”

In Mexico, a man was cleared of raping a 17-year-old girl because he acted without ‘carnal intent’

Women's groups launched a multiyear campaign to get the law changed. At some protests, activists hung wedding dresses in nooses. International organizations spoke out about it too, attributing it, in part, to the country's rise in honor killings. “It’s a huge step on the part of the government,” activist Rana Husseini told Al Jazeera. "‘Usually, women’s issues in Jordan are shoved to the back, but the government showed some seriousness with this vote.”

Getting the cabinet recommendation through Parliament, though, will be a challenge. Supporters like Israa Tawalbeh, say that there's “nothing wrong in Article 308 as such.”

“Actual rape cases are rare in our society. Sometimes, girls under 18 lose their virginity to force their families to accept marriage to their boyfriends,” she told al Arabiya. “Accepting marriage under Article 308 is better than leaving girls to be killed by their parents or relatives. … It protects the girls by forcing attackers to marry them.”

Things are changing across the region. Morocco scrapped a similar law in 2014 after a 16-year-old was forced to marry her rapist. Amina Filali was so distraught that she killed herself with rat poison. The case sparked outrage in the country and around the world. Lebanon may also do away with their version of this regulation.

Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Palestine and Syria still have laws allowing rapists who marry their victims to avoid punishment.

No matter what happens with Parliament, Jordan's women's groups say there's still much work to be done.

“Many problems within Jordanian society have yet to be solved,” activist Ghada Saba told al Jazeera. “We have to change the way our society thinks in parallel. This law protects the rapist — 308 is not just in law, it's in our heads,” she said. “The idea that the female is simply a burden, added weight on the family, and that her rape needs to be covered up, still exists.”