Women in Lebanon appear to enjoy more freedoms then women in neighboring countries: They can walk around unveiled, wearing fashionable clothes.
"The problem is that we are sold a lot of fake freedoms that raise Lebanese women under the impression that they have freedom to go anywhere, freedom to dress the way they want to," says Nadine Mouwad, founder of the women’s advocacy group Nasawiya.
However, beneath the veneer of modernity and secularism, sharia law largely governs the country, including in matters of marriage, divorce and child custody. The courts are staffed with Islamic judges and imams who usually refuse to hear cases of domestic violence. If they do, they will almost always declare the husband right.
In this deeply Islamic and conservative country, women are considered subordinate to the nation's dominant male population and treated accordingly.
Although widely underreported, it is estimated that at least three quarters of Lebanese women experience domestic abuse at some point in their lives, including a high incidence of marital rape and violent beatings.
Women's advocate groups have sprung up all over Lebanon, both to try to help abused women and to bring about public awareness of the problem. They have encouraged women to talk about their experiences, resulting in many horror stories coming to light.
The Italian government recently sponsored a three-month program that produced a show called "Behind the Doors" that featured pictures and stories of abused women in Lebanon. The show will be going on tour throughout the country. The photographs were taken by the abused women themselves.
"We brought together a group of women, gave them very simple digital cameras and my job was to teach them basics of photography," says photographer Dalia Khamissy. One result is a series of surreal photographs called “The Instruments of Torture,” that show pictures of torture tools, closets, beds, chairs used during the torture sessions.
For the women themselves, taking pictures was painful but helped them to learn how to live with horrors of what they gone through.
Khadija, an abused mother of two, told of how her husband would tie up and beat the children. If she tried to stop him, he would take a knife and threatened to kill them all. Sometimes he would torture them with electric wire, a hose and hammer. After each beating, he would rape her and then send all of them to the shower to wash off the blood.
In another incident, a mother of three related to CNN that ever since she became pregnant with her first child, her husband began beating her. After the birth of her son, he broke her nose, and she decided to divorce him. Her parents were horrified at this prospect, since according to the law, if she divorced him, he would retain custody of her child and she would be ostracized by all. They convinced her to return to her abusive husband, after which he began forcing himself on her. "He used to make me pregnant, thinking that as long as I was having kids he could make me stay," she said.
In light of the latest public outcries and public awareness programs, the Lebanese government addressed the domestic violence problem with a draft of the Law to Protect Women from Family Violence, which was originally approved by the cabinet in 2010.
The bill would have criminalized physical and sexual abuse, honor crimes and marital rape. (At the present time, domestic violence is not part of the Lebanese penal code and marital rape is legal.) Police commonly ignore these crimes and believe that these matters should be worked out on a personal level.)
The bill would have also created domestic violence police response units and provided the legal framework for restraining orders to be issued against abusers. It would have provided justice for these women who are stuck in horrible marriages where they suffer severely from domestic violence.
The law began to falter immediately after it was brought in front of the parliament for debate, due mainly to the objections of Sunni and Shi'ite authorities who are in charge of Lebanon's religious courts. These judicial authorities, who preside over all of the country's faith communities and have jurisdiction over matters of "personal status" (including marriage), have criticized the proposed law as an attempt to erode their authority.
The criminalization of marital rape "could lead to the imprisonment of the man," said Sheik Ahmad Al-Kurdi, a judge in the Sunni religious court, "where in reality he is exercising the least of his marital rights."
The clerics are also concerned that their position is being undermined. Sheikh Khaldoun Oraymet of the Higher Sharia Council said that the council could not face anything that "curbs our already extremely limited jurisdiction."
The draft bill has been diluted and watered down with so many amendments due to the objections of the religious clerics that it virtually useless and offers no protection.
Mouwad said that she would rather the bill not be passed in its current form since such a bill would merely cover up the problem, with the potential to make the problem worse.