In “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975), the French philosopher Hélène Cixous writes:
“Every woman has known the torment of getting up to speak. Her heart racing, at times entirely lost for words, ground and language slipping away- that’s how daring a feat, how great a transgression it is for woman to speak- even just open her mouth – in public.”
With that racing heart I write to you the following: it is an emergency, it is a disease, and it kills.
No, I am not talking about COVID-19, neither am I talking about saving your life hiding from the coronavirus. Rather I am talking about escaping the quarantine to save your life, for there is another VIRUS inside, one that kills women and children.
All over the world, some women and children are being violated by male figures that tick all the boxes of a criminal patriarch. These men, whose absence from home is usually a blessing for their families, are now obliged by governments to abide by the rules and stay at home.
These men are the barbarians of our society. They are the pandemic that travels not in space but in time. These men must fear a law that we women must push to punish them, not only a law that punishes when it is already too late – having sent their women or children already to their graves- but one that acts after early signs of domestic, physical, and verbal violence.
During the coronavirus, KAFA (a Lebanese non-profit and non-governmental organization) reported that women under quarantine are especially afraid of calling the organization’s hotline since the violator is not leaving the house. When we talk about this, let’s leave the privilege of sitting behind our laptops in the other room of our houses, and remember that a lot of financially poor families live in a one-room house.
On the 21st of April, Mazen Harfoush from Baaklin killed his wife, stabbing her 13 times in their bedroom. He didn’t stop there; he also went on to kill nine other people who he thought knew about what he suspected to be an affair between his wife and his brother.
What follows is another crime committed, but this time by Lebanese law itself, in which the investigation has been diverted to find out whether it was an honor crime or not. Speaking of honor crimes, it is necessary to mention that Article 252 of the Penal Code states a reduced sentence for a perpetrator who was angry at his partner after a case of adultery. This takes us to Article 251 that states the following:
“A reduced excuse leads to a reduction in the punishment, as Article 251 stipulates penalties that when the law provides for a reduced excuse: if the act is a felony, it requires the death penalty, life imprisonment, or life imprisonment; the penalty is converted to imprisonment for at least one year and seven years at most. If the act constitutes one of the other crimes, the penalty shall be imprisonment from six months to five years.”
A law like this one not only violates all women by giving a reduced sentence for the anger of criminals like Mazen, but it also deepens the sorrow of the victim’s families. The families have to live an intense double-sided lament; one of the loss of their daughter, and the other of the brutality of the condescending social gaze which this law legislates.
A few weeks ago, a five years old Syrian girl named Maha arrived dead at a hospital in Tripoli after being beaten by her father. Two girls also committed suicide in Bekaa to escape domestic violence. Many more cases are happening in the shadows of the walls of the quarantine.
This is a call for justice. This is an emergency. Going down the hierarchy of social classes, the rights of women fall downhill, too. The fabric of society cannot be looked at only from the lens that middle class women have achieved equal rights. Working class women have yet to struggle and fight barbarism hidden behind walls in their own homes.
Let there be justice. Let there be a refuge for women and children, to escape safely without a fear of wondering where to go. In the time of the coronavirus, this is an urgent call that I send out to all women and feminists out there. Let us push for a law that protects women. Let us push to equip spaces for women to take refuge in, be it schools closed for the moment or closed art centers or any four walls that won’t transform into boxes that constrain women, but instead into ones that free them.
In 2020, I am a 29-year-old woman living abroad. During quarantine, I can’t help but think that I am finally not 12 years old anymore and how much better it feels that the coronavirus didn’t come when I was a child. Like so many violated children, I saw helplessness in my mother’s eyes. I am not here to discuss that this helplessness doesn’t come from only financial difficulty but also an emotional one, as violence usually does not come in a pure form but is accompanied with manipulative additives. Having said that, and in an attempt to strengthen and empower women who have yet to fight their own demons inherited from society, plans to find refuges for women in Lebanon and elsewhere in the world must be accompanied by reassuring plans for what comes next after leaving the house.
For now, let us save women. Open your doors for those who heroically managed to escape the pandemic of domestic violence.
* Diana Al Halabi is a Lebanese artist doing her graduate studies in Fine Arts at the Piet Zwart Institute in The Netherlands. Her artworks mostly speak of the struggle and fight against patriarchy and the effects of dictatorship and news on her upbringing.