Defining “Domestic Violence”

Roula Seghaier, Lebanon

The Lebanese Legal System Engages in what it claims to Prevent

Six people embracing each other in a line with clothes in blue hues, in a yellow background with green lants
Illustration by Ipsita Divedi

Following multiple increasing disasters between the global pandemic, crumbling infrastructure, a devastating Beirut explosion, ongoing protests, and an economy on the verge of default, no legal or governmental action was pursued to alleviate those pains. Instead, the government sought a pat-on-the-back by re-opening a conversation about what constitutes violence against women.  On December 21, 2020, it met once again to amend a law to “protect” women and family from violence, of course only after clearly demarcating what they mean by each of these categories. The Lebanese legislation separates between the penal sphere, realm of the judiciary, and the “personal status” sphere, realm of sectarian rule according to Article 9 of the Constitution. Despite the “progressive” attire of an attempt to pull “women issues” within the judiciary realm, it is only certain women that this reform aims to assist while maintaining the status quo of grander violence intact.

The newly issued law narrowly outlined:

  1. The boundaries of what constitutes violence: 

A civil judge can only interfere in “family affairs” in limited cases amounting what the government considers to be a criminal offense, purposefully preserving the interests of the power-sharing sectarian regime based on the demographic control of the population through the control of its reproductive processes. Criminal offenses thus include murder, abuse, adultery and “prostitution,” resorting to traditional understanding of threats to the family unit and maintaining the protection of its “values.” According to these values, spousal rape is not considered rape or a punishable offense. In addition to that, the law purposefully conflates the concepts of sex work and human trafficking, and increased the penalty for acts that fall within this scope. The definition of violence thus excludes forms of violence that women experience systematically, such as economic violence and more. Furthermore, it sustains the “criminality” of actions that are frequently used to justify violence against women, such as engaging in adultery or sex work.

  1. “Familial relations” 

Family only stands for legal heterosexual marriage and parenthood. The proposal originally attempted to broaden the definition to include the divorcee within its stipulation, to cover the violence perpetrated by men against their ex-wives, especially in relation to child custody. An earlier attempt at broadening “family” also suggested the inclusion of live-in migrant domestic workers (MDWs) within the private household on the grounds that they live with and care for the family. While MDW ought to be considered employees, they are excluded from both national and international labor laws and have no labor protections. The faint attempt to protect them from what is dubbed as gender-based violence through the loose legal language inclusion within the scope of the family has been naïve and a failure. The suggestions have been rejected, and ignored, respectively. 

Funnily enough, after numerous attempts to pass a Standard Unified Contract (SUC) for MDWs in Lebanon, which has no binding power, the proposed text was banned by the highest legislative council in the country. In addition to being opposed by owners of recruitment agencies, it was opposed by the Organization for the Protection of the Privacy of the Family and the Worker. Yes. As ridiculous as the title sounds, the organization composed of employers of MDW in a country where MDW are not allowed to unionize, has denounced “the indifference with which the Ministry of Labor deals with women employers of domestic workers, as they were not invited to any meeting prior to the issuance of the SUC, and their opinion was not taken into account at all.” This yet again proves that “family protection” never seeks to serve women, migrants, or children, never seeks to end VAW or GBV. It only maintains the status quo all the while serenading women about “protecting” them through laws. We simply cannot expect the state to protect us from the violence it imposes on us.