x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

If the law doesn't protect rape victims, what will?

Although the law in western countries, including the UK, is relatively clear on what constitutes rape, and the official social line on rape is that it is wrong and punishable, society does not always reflect this.

In the week of the Republican nomination for the US presidency, the unlikely subject of rape was on the front pages of newspapers, after Congressman Todd Akin stated that women who are "legitimately" raped do not get pregnant, because their bodies have a mechanism to shut down conception.

This baffling observation - at odds with science - has triggered a lot of discussion about what constitutes rape, and how despite years of legislation this crime is still not taken seriously by society.

Although the law in western countries, including the UK, is relatively clear on what constitutes rape, and the official social line on rape is that it is wrong and punishable, society does not always reflect this.

Often victims are blamed for the rape: leading perpetrators on, causing temptation, walking alone at night and so on. And the social stigma of being a rape victim is still strong. Most rapes in the West go unreported, and in the UK for example only about 5 per cent of cases that make it to court end in convictions.

In the East and Middle East, the subject is taboo, but one that must be raised. Victims in these regions also suffer from the same problems: ridiculing, victim-blaming, social shame. The stigma of "bringing shame" can be even more devastating - life-threatening even - than in the West.

There is plenty of media reporting of rape cases, but discussions about reducing the incidence of rape, instituting appropriate punishment and clarifying that a woman is never to blame are rarer.

And there is one big additional problem. Even though in the West social culture is still problematic in dealing with rape, at least at an official, institutional and legal level the position against rape is clear. And this is a start.

But in the East and Middle East, the official legal position from which social change can emanate is blurry, sometimes even counter to the goals of justice and victim protection.

In Pakistan, the laws of zina say that if a woman reports a rape, but then cannot bring the testimony of four witnesses - also the evidential requirement for adultery - then she will be accused of adultery and punished accordingly.

Being forced to open herself to the stigma of rape and then risking punishment herself are obvious deterrents to reporting rape - and gaining justice.

Morocco's penal code allows a rapist to avoid prosecution by marrying his victim, if she is a minor. This year, a 15-year-old committed suicide after a judge recommended that she marry her rapist. Jordan has a similar law.

A rare, laudable attempt at establishing legal clarity about rape came from Dubai's Attorney General last March. "Dubai Public Prosecution will not spare any effort, whatsoever, to combat the crime of rape or any other crime of the same nature. Rape is alien to the UAE society," said Essam Al Humaidan.

"Rape threatens society's stability and security at a very basic level."

Such leadership from the top, clear statements and a strict watertight legal implementation that always sides with the victim, restores her honour and puts itself in her shoes and not those of the perpetrator, are all crucial.

These are the first steps towards tackling the scourge of rape, and creating a social shift to protect women and their honour. If the law itself doesn't do this, who will protect women?

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk