BEIRUT (AFP) – A draft law protecting women from domestic violence was approved Monday by a Lebanese parliamentary panel, after years of campaigning by rights groups who welcomed the move as a step forward.
The parliamentary committee's approval comes less than two weeks after 33-year-old Rula Yaaqub was beaten to death by her husband in northern Lebanon.
The killing of Yaaqub, mother of five girls, triggered an outpour of criticism by the media and civil society.
Lebanon is a country deemed more liberal than other Arab societies, but is still very patriarchal.
The bill has faced fierce resistance by Lebanon's Muslim religious authorities, in a country where there is no unified civil law on personal status.
The draft was approved by cabinet in 2010, but in Lebanon's parliamentary system it must be voted in by MPs.
Women's rights groups welcomed Monday's decision as a step forward, but said more needs to be done.
Titled "Draft law for the protection of women and all members of the family from domestic violence", the text "does not specifically protect women's rights," said Faten Abou Chacra of the KAFA campaign.
"Most cases of abuse concern women, according to studies by local and international experts, so this category must be given specific protection," said Abou Chacra, whose group's name means Enough in Arabic, and which has campaigned since 2008.
The draft law, however, recognises the existence of marital rape, which has been a bone of contention pitting rights groups against the religious authorities.
But marital rape is not classed as a crime. The draft law deems it an offence.
"According to the text, only assault and battery are considered a crime," said Abou Chacra.
Lebanon's highest Sunni authority had previously slammed the idea of criminalising marital rape as "a Western heresy".
The Shiite Hezbollah movement, meanwhile, said the bill "interfered in the affairs of husband and wife".
Abou Chacra said women's protection groups will continue in their struggle until parliament convenes again -- though it is unclear when that will happen.
Lebanon's legal system remains conservative overall.
In Lebanon, a rapist who marries his victim is exempt from punishment, while mothers cannot pass on their nationality to their children.
Fear of stigma and scandal are also to blame for silence on violence against women, activists say.
But thanks to lobbying efforts by civil society groups, parliament cancelled in 2011 the extenuating circumstances that had been used to give cover for honour crimes, or the killing of women who had "dishonoured" their families.
As in other Arab countries, few women dare to file complaints about harassment or domestic violence, as the police will usually just deride them and send them home.