“I could not accept the idea of having married my rapist”, says Sabiha, who lives in Iraq and was forced to marry a family member after he raped her.
Sabiha was 32-years-old and enjoying a successful career in a medical laboratory. One evening she stayed late at work and was raped by a security guard, who happened to be her cousin.
Rather than holding the perpetrator responsible, the rape was seen as an attack on Sabiha's family "honour", and to lessen the stigma she was forced to marry the very man who had sexually assaulted her.
Meanwhile, he was able to escape punishment thanks to Article 398, a law in Iraq's penal code that allows a rapist to escape punishment by marrying their victim.
Now women's rights campaigners around the world are calling on the Iraqi government to take immediate action to repeal this 'marry your rapist' law.
In 2017, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon all removed similar legal loopholes in their penal codes, as did Palestine in March this year. Activists hope Iraq will be next.
The introduction of these marriage exemption laws across the region stem from French and Ottoman colonial rule, which left many countries in the Middle East and North Africa with similar penal codes.
Suad Abu-Dayyeh, from international women’s rights organisation Equality Now, explains: "A rape victim is often blamed for the attack rather than being supported. Some may hold her responsible because she didn’t ‘do enough’ to resist, or may have ‘invited it’.”
“Another justification is that it’s better for a woman to marry her rapist because she is otherwise ‘unmarriageable’. These cultural traditions place a heavy burden on the victim and pressure her to ‘agree’ to marry her attacker.”
Iraqi MP Intisar Aljubory has submitted a bill to Parliament requesting the repeal of Article 398. Equality Now and regional partners Baghdad Women Association (BWA), Iraqi Women League and Coalition of Women MPs from Arab Countries to Combat Violence Against Women are asking the Iraqi Speaker of the House, Salim al-Jabouri, to immediately call for a vote.
Courageous activists from BWA are holding street theatre performances in Baghdad to build public support for abolishing the ‘marry-your-rapist’ law.
Rasha Khalid from BWA, explains, “There has been an increase in sexual violence crimes in Iraq as a result of ISIS attacks alongside the continuing terrorist threat and difficult security situation.
“BWA has also found that most rape criminals have full and accurate knowledge of the legal texts that allow impunity for perpetrators, such as Article 398 of the Iraqi Penal Code which allows the perpetrator to marry the victim.
“By marrying his victim, a rapist is able to gain legal and social immunity. Furthermore, as our social system deems marriage a private matter between husband and wife, it means no one has the right to intervene. This leaves women extremely vulnerable to further abuse.”
People globally can support rape survivors in Iraq by sending letters to Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and Speaker of the House Salim al-Jabouri urging them to introduce a vote in Parliament for the repeal of Article 398.
Abu-Dayyeh says,"When a man who has raped a girl or woman is allowed to marry his victim, the circle of violence continues with trauma, beatings and neglect. She will be more exposed to domestic violence and rape from her husband, and is likely to have restricted movement and a lack of power in decision making. Meanwhile the man is being rewarded for raping someone instead of being punishing by being sent to prison.
"International human rights law guarantees equal rights and legal protections for women and girls, and it is a gross violation of human rights when a victim is pressured to marry the man who raped her. With national elections schedule in Iraq for May 12, we call on the country’s leadership to take positive action”.
“We also applaud the brave campaigners in Iraq who are operating in very risky circumstances. They are fighting for women and girls rights despite the difficult situation on the ground with the country’s weak economy, high poverty levels, corruption issues, sectarian and political tensions, and the threat of armed conflict."
Article 398 is part of a broader attack on gender equality in Iraq. Other recent examples include a bill requesting the government pay married men an incentive for entering into up to four polygamous marriages, and another which could result in the age of marriage being lowered to nine years old.
Equality Now is an international human rights organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world by combining grassroots activism with international, regional and national legal advocacy.
An international network of lawyers, activists, and supporters achieve legal and systemic change by holding governments responsible for enacting and enforcing laws and policies that end legal inequality, sex trafficking, sexual violence, and harmful practises such as female genital mutilation and child marriage.