Bahrain: No Protection for Women from Spousal Rape

Getting a divorce and custody of one’s children is very difficult in Bahrain, even in cases where a husband sexually attacks his wife.
The issue was exposed to the public last year, when an Arab woman married to a Bahraini was granted a divorce by the courts after she lost part of her breast during a violent sexual encounter with her spouse. A medical report submitted during the case citing the need for corrective surgery was valid enough evidence for the judge to call off the marriage. Though such cases are rarely highlighted in the media here, the plight of this woman made top headlines in many regional newspapers.
Similar to almost all Arab and Islamic countries, Bahrain offers women no protection from their sexually abusive husbands. Only in cases of physical injury will the courts grant a divorce. For those who bear no physical marks, victims of sexual abuse feel helpless, as marital rape isn’t penalized in this part of the world.

In a region that still considers sex a taboo, spousal rape remains in the dark as most families fear even acknowledging its existence. Many women live in pain and humiliation because they were raised to believe that their bodies belong to their husbands who have the right to enjoy them as objects.

In many parts of the Islamic world, hardliners and social misconceptions promote this submission - wives are instructed to never deny the sexual demands of their husbands, as disobedience is perceived as a violation of Islamic principles. But there is something terribly wrong with this interpretation of Islam – no woman should have to tolerate sexual abuse from her husband or be told that she won’t get into heaven if she doesn’t.

An internet-based survey conducted by a Saudi newspaper reveals that 93% of women surveyed admitted experiencing sexual problems in their marriage. According to female activist Dr. Madeha Al-Ajroosh, socially conservative Saudi Arabia lacks any formal or comprehensive survey about partner rape. She told Arab News that it is difficult to carry out any scientific survey, as “few women are willing to open up and discuss their sexual lives.”

The situation isn’t much better in Egypt. According to a study by the Al Nadeen Center for Psychological Rehabilitation, 29% of Egyptian wives surveyed throughout the country are subjected to sexual violence. The study also reveals that many husbands choose physically and psychologically inappropriate timing to engage in sexual relations. Women confessed that their husbands become monsters in bed, especially with the affordable and widespread availability of sexual supplements for men. The study highlights that most of this violence can’t be proven for the court to take action.

And as the entire world now knows, in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai recently authorized a law that legalizes spousal rape among Shiite couples, denying women the right to say no to their husbands.

At the local level, Bahrain’s penal code doesn’t criminalize spousal rape for many religious and social reasons. There is no legislation that tackles the issue so many wives suffer their humiliation in silence. Dr Bana Buzabon, president of the Batelco Anti-Domestic Violence Center, says some women feel they have to live with the abuse because of their husband’s psychological problems. Others who want to fight for their dignity and physical safety “are shattered when they realize that the legal system cannot help them,” she says.

Dr. Buzabon’s center fielded 8,111 cases of domestic violence in 2008 – nearly 50% of which she says involved spousal sexual abuse. “We cannot help in most of the cases as the courts ask for evidence. And even if there are [physical] signs judges feel that women, to some extent, allow their husbands to abuse them.” Dr. Buzabon says that most women don’t ask for help fearful of the humiliation that comes with being disrespected in a society that positions men as masters over women.

President of the Bahrain Women’s Union, Mariam Al Ruwai, says that 43% of the country’s divorce cases have been filed because of violence. “There is an average of 4,000 marriages taking place in Bahrain annually and only an average of 1,000 divorces. That doesn’t mean we don’t have marital problems, but many women fear the maltreatment they might face by conservative judges if they sue their husbands [for divorce].”

Noora is one of the many women who suffer in silence. Her nightmare is far from over - for the past 23 years, she has tolerated her husband’s sexual disorders to avoid disgracing the name of her family.

“When I secretly told my elders about his tough and frequent sexual desires when I was newly wed, I was told to be patient as we were both young,” she explains. “[I was told that] he would become gentle over time, but that never happened. My three children are working now and his sexual desire remains unaffected,” she says.

“I was instructed by my parents to not open my mouth and told that good wives don’t discuss such topics. I listened to them but all I got is heartache and a weak body in return,” Noora says bitterly.

Many of the country’s scholars maintain the opposite stance when it comes to spousal rape. Scholar and judge at the Shariah courts, Shaikh Mohsin Al Asfoor says men have the right to demand sexual relations with their wives as the word “rape” doesn’t exist between couples. He says that Shariah courts don’t penalize men for forcing their wives to have sex with them, but press charges of abuse – not rape – only when physical injuries occur.

“Shariah courts have declined many cases filed by women against their husbands because they forced them to have sex, especially females who signed the marriage contracts but were waiting to be wedded, because Islamic regulations are clear in the right of men to have sex with their wives whenever they wish,” he explains.

Religious educator Fatima Busandel agrees with Shaikh Al Asfoor saying that women can’t say no to their husbands and that if they tolerate hardship in their sexual relations they will receive God’s blessing for trying to protect their homes. “I don’t mean to ask women to keep quiet about their sexually violent men, but try to change them. 50% of violence against females is because they don’t know how to deal with men.” She says that she’s come across many cases in which women succeeded in changing their husbands with patience.

Female activist Afaf Al Jamri doesn't see it that way. She says that many women tolerate this sexual violence because of distorted interpretations of Islamic regulations, mainly Hadhith (or the oral traditions passed down from the teachings of Prophet Mohammed). She calls on society to focus exclusively on the Quran and its verses since she feels they are clear and can’t be misinterpreted.

The Ministry of Justice released statistics to parliament in May highlighting that there are currently 1,231 marital cases not yet closed in the country’s Shariah courts. A study conducted by the Bahrain’s Women Union reveals that some of these women have been fighting to end their marriages for the past ten years.

Spousal rape is an issue that must be addressed in the Gulf region as there is no religion that accepts or promotes the humiliation and suffering of its followers. Sex isn’t just for men – mutual satisfaction and understanding should be an integral part of all spousal sexual relations. Women must be empowered to fight for their rights and say no to spousal rape. The next generation of women is watching.

29 June 2009

By by Suad Hamada (A journalist in Bahrain since 1997, her writing focuses on politics and women’s empowerment in both Bahrain and the larger Arab region)

Source: WIP