Bahrain abolishes controversial rape law

Article 353 of penal code allowed offenders to avoid prosecution if they married their victim

The Shura Council approved a draft law to abolish article 353 of the penal code. Photo: Shura Council Bahrain
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Bahrain’s parliament has voted to abolish a law exempting rapists from punishment if they marry their victim.

The move was welcomed by women’s rights activists, who fought for years against the legislation.

Bahrain’s upper house of parliament, the Shoura Council, unanimously voted to remove Article 353 from the country’s penal code. It allowed those who committed rape or sexual assault to avoid punishment if they married the victim.

“Rapists will not escape punishment. Bahrain is a country with a traditional Muslim culture with respect offered to many religions,” Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs and Endowments Nawaf Al Maawada said during the weekly session of parliament.

“Governments need to study and update legislation as society and cultures evolve.”

Bahrain is the latest country in the Middle East and North Africa region to abolish laws or amend penal codes that have allowed rapists to avoid prosecution by simply pledging to marry their victims.

In 2017, Lebanon, Jordan and Tunisia scrapped similar laws in their countries.

Nancy Khedouri, a member of the Shoura Council and part of the foreign affairs, defence and national security committee that handled the bill to abolish the law, said the decision was important as part of the kingdom’s latest efforts at legislative reforms.

“The abolition of this article came as an imperative necessity because it did not address the issue of rape and did not provide adequate protection for women from this crime, but on the contrary, it protected the rapist and rewarded him for his crime by marrying the victim, without taking into account her psychological status and the status of her family in society,” Ms Khedouri told The National.

“It made those who are victims of the crime of rape in a worse situation than those who commit the crime, where a marriage resulting from a rape would allow a quick escape for the rapist from being lawfully penalised,” she added.

The secretary general of Bahrain’s Supreme Council for Women, Hala Al Ansari, said scrapping article 353 was consistent with recommendations made in 2015.

“The abolition of article 353 of the penal code is in line with the provisions of the family law article 24 and article 27, which require consent between the two parties. The move taken by the legislative branch would relieve the affected women of any pressures that may lead them to accept the fait accompli in case of an assault,” Ms Al Ansari said.

Khaled El Mekwad, UN resident co-ordinator in Bahrain, said: “This landmark legislative reform will increase the protection of the fundamental rights of women and girls in Bahrain.”

Speaking about efforts to draft the law, female members of parliament have said it was high time to change the legislation, which discriminated against victims.

“Article 353 of the penal code added another layer of challenge to the victim of punishing instead of protecting her, but obliging her to marry someone who committed a crime against her, degraded her dignity, deprived her of her most basic rights to choose her life partner and violated the pillar of consent as a condition for the validity of the marriage contract in Islamic law,” MP Eman Showaiter from the lower house of parliament told The National.

“The abolition of Article 353 of the Bahraini penal code is an important and necessary requirement to preserve the dignity and humanity of women.”

Both houses of parliament initially began efforts to debate the law in 2016 but these were shelved at the time.

The move this week to abolish the law was welcomed by Bahraini writers including Ahdeya Ahmed, who told The National that she wished it had happened earlier.

“Bahrain's government has worked tirelessly to ensure women in the country gain their full rights and are protected by the law, and unfortunately this law allowed rapists to get away with punishment if they married their victims,” Ahmed told The National.

“So it's unfortunate that it took so much time but at least it was finally abolished.”

Updated: May 23, 2023, 1:47 PM