Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
29 Apr. - 5 May 1999
Issue No. 427
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Index of issues This week's issue

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Rape clause repealed

By Mariz Tadros

It is certain that there will be fewer marriage proposals made by rapists to their victims, now that the People's Assembly has approved the annulment of clause 291 of the Penal Code, which waives aside criminal charges against a rapist if he offers to marry his victim. The removal of the clause is intended to discourage would-be rapists from committing the crime, believing that they can get away with it. Three men accused of gang-raping a young woman were facing trial last December, but the charges were dropped at the last minute after one of the offenders offered to marry the victim and she was pressured by her family to accept.

Azza Suleiman, head of the Centre for Egyptian Women's Legal Aid, believes that the removal of the clause is an important step forward toward the recognition of women's rights. With the abolition of clause 291, she believes that "men will no longer be rewarded for rape by marriage and women will no longer be pressured into agreeing to marry the aggressors in order to protect family honour."

Now, even if a rapist offers to marry the victim and she is pressured into acceptance, the offender will face criminal charges and will be put on trial. "Previously, legislators gave priority to a family's honour over a victim's rights," Suleiman said. She explained that the annulled clause had been defended on the grounds of satr (protection) for a woman who has been raped, "whose chances of ever getting married were deemed to be very slim." By implication, clause 291 had put the blame for the crime on the woman and gave her the opportunity to correct her "mistake" by getting married.

Suleiman expressed hope that the abolition of clause 291 will encourage women to report rape crimes and take legal action against rapists, "because a woman will no longer be held responsible for what happened against her will." She added that a reform of legal codes, while important, has to be accompanied by efforts to change social perceptions and ideas on the status of women.

Dr Magda Adly, of the Nadim Centre for the Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, said that the abolished clause had put women in a situation where, "after an attempt was made to kill them psychologically, they were urged to marry the perpetrators. It reinforced the social perception of women as sexual objects." Adly underscored the lifelong trauma associated with rape and the lengthy process of rehabilitation. She believes that the abolition of the clause was the result of NGO lobbying. Since the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) of 1994, said Adly, "women activists and NGOs have been lobbying for this abolition. We were then ostracised and told that such personal issues are not open for public discussion. But now things have started to change and the silence has been broken."

Adly argued that the abolition is not enough. "The unemployment problem, the cultural codes and the negative image of women all need to be addressed," she said. Adly believes that the increasing impoverishment of the poor classes is also a factor behind the crime.

Hoda Badran, head of the Alliance of Arab Women, argued that while the repeal of clause 291 by the People's Assembly was hailed as a positive step, there was still reason for concern. "Some MPs expressed the belief that laying down conditions for the marriage might be better than the abolition of the clause," she said. "A suggestion was made, for example, that if the rapist married the victim, it should be for at least a year. This just shows how much respect there is for women, as if marriage could cancel aggression."

The increase of rape crimes, said Badran, is appalling. "According to one source, one crime occurs every day. This has become a phenomenon," she asserted. Badran also blames economic conditions, lack of security and the taboo nature of the issue. "The problem has to be addressed in its totality," she said. "For example, there is a pressing need for programmes to educate girls and boys about sexual molestation, how to identify it and fight it, because aggressors often rely on children's silence in not bringing them to accountability."

According to reports in the local press, the incidence of child assault has undoubtedly increased. Seven young men in the working class neighbourhood of Boulaq Al-Dakrour are facing criminal charges for kidnapping and gang-raping a mentally retarded girl for several days, and then disposing of her body. The Mufti has approved the death sentence against a rapist who kidnapped a five-year-old girl and raped her continuously for 45 days.

It is believed that statements made in December by the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar and the Mufti, calling for the urgent annulment of clause 291, played an instrumental role in mobilising support for the bill.

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