Domestic violence cases spark protests in Lebanon

Associated Press
In this Tuesday, March 4, 2014 photo, Nada Sabbagh weeps in front of a picture of her daughter, Manal Assi, who was killed last month, as she recounts during an interview with The Associated Press how her son-in-law killed Manal in front of family members, south of Beirut, Lebanon. The killing of Sabbagh’s daughter is one of three domestic violence slayings in Lebanon in recent months, drawing new attention to women’s rights in this country of 4 million people. Although Lebanon appears very progressive on women rights compared to other countries in the Middle East, domestic violence remains an unspoken problem and the nation’s parliament has yet to vote on a bill protecting women’s rights nearly three years after it was approved by the Cabinet. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
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BEIRUT (AP) — Nada Sabbagh received a brief, chilling telephone call from her son-in-law last month telling her: "Come to your daughter. I am going to kill her."

Sabbagh said by the time she arrived to her daughter's home in Beirut, her husband had kicked, punched and beaten her with a pressure cooker, leaving her mortally wounded and bleeding on the floor.

"I walked in and started jumping in shock then begged him to let me take her out," Sabbagh later recounted. She said he responded by saying: "I will not let her out. I want her to die in front of you."

Manal Assi's husband, Mohammed Nuheili, was detained shortly afterward and is still being questioned by authorities. It remains unclear if he has a lawyer and he could not be reached for comment.

The killing of Sabbagh's daughter is one of three domestic violence slayings in Lebanon in recent months, drawing new attention to women's rights in this country of 4 million people. Although Lebanon appears very progressive on women rights compared to other countries in the Middle East, domestic violence remains an unspoken problem and the nation's parliament has yet to vote on a bill protecting women's rights nearly three years after it was approved by the Cabinet.

"If a woman does not have authority in her house, how can she take an authoritative post (in government)? It starts here," said Maya al-Ammar, an official with a Lebanese women's rights group Kafa, Arabic for "Enough." ''If you don't remove (domestic) violence and the woman can't become the ruler of herself, she will not be able to be able to take a decision-making post."

Civil rights activists say that a woman is killed every month by their husbands on average in Lebanon, while thousands are subjected to physical or verbal abuse every year.

In the past, it used to be taboo to openly speak about such family issues. Some used to claim that their daughters died after they fell in order to avoid what could be seen as "shameful." Today, however, the death of a woman at the hands of her husband gets extensive coverage by local media and has sparked widespread awareness campaigns online.

"We are not doing anything shameful. We are not harming anyone," said a Lebanese domestic violence survivor who only gave her first name as Bahiya out of fear of reprisals. "We probably reached this point because of the word shame."

Bahiya described how her husband of nearly 20 years regularly beat her with his hands and a stick. She once went to the hospital after he grazed her with a gunshot. With the help of Kafa, she was able to get a divorce recently and won custody of her four daughters.

The woman recounted how once after fleeing to a police station, an officer there told her that she faced merely "a family affair."

Many Lebanese women also see the laws in this Arab country as discriminating against them. Lebanese women married to foreigners cannot pass their citizenship to their children and husbands. The country's personal status law, which deals with cases involving divorce or inheritance, is implemented according to the person's religion and their faith dictates their fate. Some young women under 18 get kidnapped by their future husbands and get married with the help of religious clerics against the will of their parents.

The same goes for politics. There is no quota for women in parliament or government ministries. Women now hold just four seats in the country's 128-delegate. Lebanon's newly formed government has only one female Cabinet minister.

Activists are urging Lebanon's parliament to approve a new law regarding domestic violence at its first meeting after a legislative subcommittee approved it last year.

Ghassan Moukheiber, the general rapporteur of the parliamentary Human Rights committee, said the reason the law has not been approved is because parliament has not met since a previous Cabinet resigned in March last year. Lebanon was run by a caretaker Cabinet until last month.

Moukheiber said he expects the draft to be unanimously approved once parliament meets.

"I look forward for the voting of this bill because it is going to be a very important and meaningful step toward stopping all sorts of violence against women," Moukheiber told The Associated Press.

Some Sunni and Shiite Muslim clerics have criticized the proposed law, however, saying it dismantles families.

On Saturday, about 5,000 people marched in Beirut to demand protection for women and urged the parliament to vote on the domestic violence law.

"We came down to the street because we want a law to protect us. We tell the state we want a law quickly," hundreds of women chanted.

But for Sabbagh, the damage of domestic violence has already been inflicted on her family. She said she could only be happy that her daughter's two children were at school at the time of the killing and did not see their mother's bloody, beaten corpse.

"My heart is boiling like fire," Sabbagh said. "My daughter was not an insect. She was the light of my heart."

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Follow Bassem Mroue on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bmroue .

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