On August 16, 2017, in a historic vote, Lebanon’s 128-member parliament repealed Article 522 of the country’s penal code, which absolved rapists of a crime if they married their victims. The abolition of the country’s “Marry-Your-Rapist” law followed a powerful campaign led by Ghida Anani, the founder and director of Abaad, a women’s rights group in Lebanon. During the campaign, Abaad posted billboards all around Beirut showing a bandaged and bruised woman in a wedding dress, with the caption “A White Dress Doesn’t Cover the Rape.”
Lebanon’s parliamentary vote closely followed a similar vote by Jordan’s Lower House of Parliament on August 1, 2017, abolishing Article 308 of the country’s penal code, which allowed perpetrators of sexual assault to elude punishment if they married their victims. Even so, “Marry-Your-Rapist” laws still exist in Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, the Philippines, Syria and Tajikistan.
Curiously, the Torah also commands rapists to marry their victims, as we learn in the upcoming Torah portion of Ki Teitzei (“When You Go Out,”) which is read in synagogue this Shabbat, on September 2. According to Robert Alter’s translation of Deuteronomy 22: 28-29, “If a man finds a virgin young woman who is not betrothed and take hold of her and lie with her, and they be found, the man lying with her shall give to the young woman’s father fifty weights of silver, and she shall be his wife inasmuch as he abused her. He shall not be able to send her away all his days.”
In a footnote, Alter adds, “It is not clear whether there was a standard bride-price in Israel, but fifty weights of silver sounds generous.” To which I respond: Generous to whom? The rape victim who is forced to spend the rest of her life with her rapist?
I know that the Torah was written in a different time, with different social norms. Still, the continued existence of Marry-Your-Rapist laws reminds us that not much has changed in parts of the world. And as commentators like to remind us, the Torah laws pertaining to rape victims and women taken in war are superior to analogous laws of the time, because they protect the victim’s human rights. So, for example, Deuteronomy 21: 10-13 explains that “when you go out to battle against your enemies . . . and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and take her for yourself as a wife, you shall bring her into your house, and she shall shave her head and do her nails, and she shall take off her captive’s cloak and stay in your house and cry for her father and mother, and afterwards you may come to her and possess her, and she shall be your wife.”
Medieval commentators interpreted this grief-stricken beauty routine as a means of making the captive unattractive, and that it is, in fact, a concession designed to discipline her captor’s desire “through a process meant to extinguish it.” On the plus side, we are told, she is offered that full month of nail-trimming, head-shaving and keening before she begins her life of sexual slavery.
When I re-read the laws on adultery, virginity, betrothal and rape in Ki Teitzei — which I will be chanting from the Torah in synagogue — I am also reminded that this disturbing section of Deuteronomy also helped transform me into a Jewish feminist. I remember my consternation, as a 15-year-old pupil at London’s Hasmonean High School for Girls, on reading Chapter 22: 23-25 of Deuteronomy: “Should there be a virgin young woman betrothed to a man, and a man find her in the town and lie with her, you shall bring them both out to the gate of that town and stone them to death — the young woman, because she did not cry out for help in the town, and the man, because he violated another man’s wife, and you shall root out the evil from your midst.”
“That’s not right,” I told my teacher. A woman is raped in a town and yet she is stoned to death. She did not cry out, therefore the implication is that she must have been complicit, a willing partner. My teacher defended these Torah verses, and in so doing awakened my Jewish feminist consciousness. She taught me, in that classroom so many years ago, to question unjust laws and not simply accept what was written in the Torah, because it is the Torah.
How familiar is the assumption that a woman who does not cry out is a willing partner. In fact, modern research in neurobiology reveals that freezing, immobility, or quiescent immobility are common defense responses to threat or attack when flight or fight fails. James Hopper, a researcher on the neurobiology of trauma, writes in The Washington Post that “countless victims of sexual assault describe just such responses. Too often police officers, college administrators, even friends and family think to themselves — and say out loud — “Why didn’t you run out of the room?” “Why didn’t you scream?”
There are many other reasons why women do not “cry out” even after they have been raped. According to data compiled by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, it is estimated that only 15.8 to 35 percent of all sexual assaults are reported to the police. Some reasons given for the lack of reporting include: “fear of reprisal,” “belief that the police would not do anything to help,” and “did not want offender to get in trouble with the law.” There is also the terrible truth that women who do report rape and sexual assault are not always believed.
The Torah portion of Ki Teitzei gives us a good opportunity to look at sexual crimes against women and what they mean for our time. As Alter notes, the writer of the verses on the captive, “comely” woman clearly recognized her sexual exploitation, forbidding her captor from selling her for silver, “inasmuch as you have abused her.” The verse uses the same word for abuse, “inah” as is used for rape. Instead, “if you like her not, you shall send her away on her own,” discarded as damaged goods. Every time I read about the shaven-headed captive “beautiful woman” with her cloak removed, crying for her home, her father and her mother, her country and everything she has lost, I feel like weeping with her.