Amid chaos, wars and crises, it is satisfying to achieve human rights victories for the women of this region. In one week, the Jordanian Parliament repealed a law exempting rapists from punishment if they married their victims. A few days earlier, Tunisia had done the same, and Lebanon is considering repealing its version. This disgraceful law is still in force in Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Syria and the Palestinian territories.
No longer forcing a rape victim to marry her violator is a triumph over a humiliating and violent tradition, but for women, our path is still long and steep.
Gender-based violence is the greatest human rights challenge of our time, and it creates a double dilemma in this region. Across the Arab world, from Syria to Iraq, Yemen and Libya, violent conflicts are competing in their levels of ferocity. Even those countries not trapped in the cycle of war are floundering helplessly in various crises, some of them violent.
In such circumstances, women are especially vulnerable targets. Violence against women and girls escalates because communities are in a state of anxiety and disorder, and the social and legal systems of protection and support are lost. This is our fragile state.
According to the World Bank, there are fewer laws protecting women from family violence in the Arab region than anywhere in the world.
Pardoning rapists by forcing victims to marry them is indefensible, and its abolition in Jordan and Tunisia is welcome — but women remain too vulnerable to violence.
Most Arab states still turn a blind eye to gender-based violence. There have been efforts in recent years to address the issue, but they are barely enough. Yes, there have been achievements, but all the legal achievements in the world will be futile without a protective organized force.
It is not enough to celebrate legal victories. Perceptions in civil society and the legal system must reflect what these victories represent. Sometimes, empowering women to seek justice is more important than a legal text.
When the discourse is overwhelmingly male-dominated, violence against women ceases to be an abnormal exception and becomes a cultural norm, which some people pride themselves on and strive to protect.
The concept of “cultural privacy” must no longer be used as a cover for the oppression of women in private, and their exclusion from the public sphere. While we wait for this change to happen, congratulations to Jordan and Tunisia.
• Diana Moukalled is a veteran journalist with extensive experience in both traditional and new media. She is also a columnist and freelance documentary producer. She can be reached on Twitter @dianamoukalled