A presidential decree issued at the beginning of 2011 made long-awaited changes to the country’s criminal law, which dates to 1949 and contains numerous provisions considered prejudicial towards women. But while the amendments are a step forward, local activists say they do not go far enough.
The amendments included stricter sentences for rape and honour killings. While some women’s rights advocates hailed the amendments, others argued that certain provisions – such as articles 548 and 508, which provide for lenient sentences for ‘honour killings’, and encourage rapists to marry their victims – should be dropped completely.
Critics also note that other prejudicial provisions in the criminal code remain unchanged. For example, article 489 permits marital rape and article 473 imposes longer sentences on women than on men who have sex outside of marriage. A woman who has sex outside of marriage can be sentenced to three months to two years in jail while a man who commits the same ‘crime’ can be imprisoned for between one month and one year.
Licence to kill
One of the most controversial articles in Syria’s criminal law is article number 548, which provides lighter sentences for unplanned ‘honour killings’ – murder by male family members of female relatives for the latter’s alleged impropriety – than it does for other non-premeditated murders.
The amended article raises the sentence for men who “by chance catch their wife or female relative in the act of having sex with a man and inadvertently kills one or both of them” to five to seven years of imprisonment instead of the previous two-year sentence. For other non-premeditated murders, the regular sentence is 15 to 20 years of hard labour. In some cases, however, the sentence amounts to a life sentence of hard labour.
Bassam al-Kadi, director of the women’s rights group Syrian Women’s Observatory, said amending the honour killing law is not enough.
“The main problem with article 548 is not that the sentence is lenient. Rather, it is that the state is giving men a licence to kill female citizens under the excuse of honour,” Kadi said. “This article cannot be amended. It should be dropped.”
Kadi also argues that the amendment is insignificant because this article only applies to 1 percent of the honour killings that occur in Syria.
“Men rarely catch their wives or female relatives in the act of cheating,” he explained.
Articles number 191, 192, 240 and 242 were not amended. They refer generally to aggravated assaults and murders committed with ‘honourable intentions’ and, according to Kinda al-Shammat, a professor at the University of Damascus’s faculty of law, pertain to 90 percent of ‘honour killings’ most of which are believed to be premeditated. While the regular sentence for pre-meditated murders according to article 535 is execution, men convicted of murder under these codes can go to prison for a meagre three months.
“Even if the ‘honour killings’ article 548 was dropped altogether, these articles can still be used to give murderers a reduced sentence,” Shammat said.
Another amended provision of the law lambasted by critics is article 508, which reduces the sentence of rapists who agree to marry their victims.
Rapists in Syria are sentenced to a minimum of nine years of hard labour and a maximum of 21 years if the victim is younger than 15. However, article 508 of the old criminal law states that the sentence is suspended if the rapist marries his victim and does not divorce her within five years. The sentence was raised to two years for men who marry their victims.
The law is designed to encourage rapists to marry their victims to protect the women from being murdered for ‘honour’ by male relatives.
“Unfortunately, raped women are not considered a victim by our society. They are blamed for triggering the incident and are in some cases even killed by their families to restore the family’s honour,” Shammat said. This leaves some women with two alternatives – to marry their rapists or die.
“No woman would willingly accept to marry a man who raped her,” Kadi added. “This law not only gives rapists a reduced sentence, but also offers them their victim as a present.”
Instead of forcing the victim to marry her rapist, Shammat said a better solution would be to open shelters for victims of rape who are being threatened by their families. These women should also have access to free counselling, she added.
Other articles in the current criminal law in desperate need of amendment remain. One such article states that a man can be convicted of rape if he forces “any woman other than his wife” to have sex – in effect sanctioning rape within marriage.
Statistics on the frequency of marital rape in Syria are hard to determine, however. Kadi, who through his work meets many rape victims, estimated that 70 percent of married Syrian women have been raped by their husbands.
“All my female acquaintances have been raped at least once by their husbands,” Kadi said. “With the lack of sexual education in Syria, many women are raised to believe that having sex with their husband is a duty rather than a source of pleasure. This makes marital rape acceptable for them.”
Wives’ reluctance to talk about their sex life publicly makes combating marital rape difficult, he added.
Even though Kadi calls for the amendment of this and other articles that restrict the rights of women, he said he believes that changing the law alone is not enough to prevent marital rape. Instead, family counselling centres must be opened, sexual education should be introduced in Syrian schools and policemen must be trained on how to deal with marital rape cases.
A nod to civil society
While activists say the amendments are far from sufficient, Shammat remains optimistic. She said the changes signal that the Syrian government has started to seriously address women’s rights.
“Activists have been calling for amending the law since the seventies. However, it’s only in the last seven years that tangible changes have been made,” she said.
Shammat was referring to seven years ago, when the Syrian government announced that part of its 10th Five-Year Plan would be to work to combat violence against women. At that time, it established the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs as the first public organisation to work on women’s rights issues. In 2008, the commission organised the first official conference about honour killings and called for dropping article 548, among others. It also played an important role in the campaign to freeze a personal status draft law – leaked to the public in 2009 – which restricted women’s rights in numerous ways and critics say would have reversed years of hard-fought advances.
There are only two shelters for Syrian women who are abused by their husbands or family members. Shammat, who works at both shelters, said the increased media and government attention on women’s rights has encouraged more women to speak up and visit the facilities during the last five years.
Kadi agrees. “Though they have little effects on the ground, the amendments are symbolically important,” he said.
This article was published in Syria Today magazine.