The World’s Craziest Anti-Women Laws

by Nina Strochlic for

Ajit Solanki/AP

February 16, 2015 - Women’s advocacy group Equality Now calls out 44 governments for their laws against women.

Where in the world can a man abduct a woman, marry her, and immediately become impossible to prosecute? That would be Lebanon and Malta. Where can’t a married woman get divorced without her husband’s permission? Try Israel. In Russia, women are still forbidden from “hard, dangerous and/or unhealthy trades.”

All these laws are still on the books despite the fact that 20 years ago, at the 1995 World Conference on Women, 189 countries signed on to a plan that would incorporate greater gender equality in their penal codes by revoking any discriminatory laws.

Women’s advocacy group Equality Now has launched a campaign against 44 governments for their discriminatory laws. The report, “Ending Sex Discrimination in the Law,” was released on Friday with the intention of launching a worldwide petition campaign and accompanied by the hashtag #UnSexyLaws.

There’s a sliver of light shining on the deep, dark depths of law books and penal codes. The organization has been releasing similar reports since 1999, and so far made serious strides: more than half of the laws it condemned since 1999 have since been repealed or amended, from Bangladesh to Lesotho.

Still, here we are, in 2015, and these horrendous laws—an abominable selection of which are listed below—are still on the books.

Where Married Women Can Be Raped

India has been struggling to address its sexual assault problem the global outcry over a brutal gang rape and death of young student made headlines across the world in 2012. But a year later, the country added this clause into legislation—“Sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape.” The country has effectively legalized marital rape.

A similar law remains on the books in Singapore, where marital rape is acceptable so long as the girl is over 13 years old. In the Bahamas, rape is also not considered if there is a marriage and the girl is at least 14 years old.

Where You Can Freely Abduct a Woman

In Malta and Lebanon, crimes are literally erased once the offender marries the victim. For instance, in Malta, if a kidnapper “after abducting a person, shall marry such person, he shall not be liable to prosecution,” the law says. If the marriage occurs after a trial and conviction, the abductor’s sentence will immediately be wiped. Similarly, in Lebanon, crimes including rape and kidnapping, will be halted at the time of marriage. If there’s divorce within five years of a felony crime, the prosecution or penalty can resume.

Similar abominable laws were overthrown in Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Peru and Uruguay, in the past decade.

It’s Legal for Women to Be Beaten

In Nigeria, violence “by a husband for the purpose of correcting his wife” is considered lawful. Violence is similarly allowed if a parent or schoolmaster is punishing a child, or a “master for the purpose of correcting his servant.”

Where It’s Illegal for Women to Do Labor

In China, women can’t “work down the pit of mines,” or do difficult physical labor, or, specifically, “other work that female workers should avoid.” Similar laws are repeated in books across the globe—making for a totally geographically diverse triangle. In Madagascar, women cannot be employed at night in an “industrial establishment” unless it’s the family business. And Russian lawmakers decided that “labor of females on hard, dangerous and/or unhealthy forbidden.” This sweeping statement covers 456 different types of work, including driving trains, carpenting, frontline firefighting, and sailing.

Where Women Can’t Drive

In Saudi Arabia, a 1990 Fatwa argues that “women’s driving of automobiles” is prohibited, due to it being “a source of undeniable vices,” such as men and women privately meeting and women removing their veils. Though this isn’t an official entry into the law books, it’s illegal for women to be given a driver’s license in the first place. In December, two women were detained and then referred to trial in terrorism court for trying to drive over the border. Last week, a Saudi historian went on television to defend the ban, arguing that women who drive in the U.S. and Europe “don’t care if they are raped on the roadside, but we do.”

Where Men Chose a Woman’s Work

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a “wife is obliged to live with her husband and follow him wherever he sees fit to reside.” She also cannot appear in civil court or “sell or undertake commitments” without her husband’s go-ahead. If the husband agrees but later changes his mind, he can revoke that privilege. This makes it almost impossible for a woman to open her own business, or do any above-the-table dealings independently.

In Guinea, a similar law applies to women seeking a separate profession from her husband, which is illegal if he objects.

In Yemen, a 1992 act allows that a wife “must obey him and refrain from disobedience, and perform her work around the conjugal home.” She’s barred from even leaving the home without expressed permission. When she does go outside it must be for “a mutually agreed job that does not conflict with Islamic law. A legitimate excuse would be for the woman to take care of her frail parents if she is the only one available to care for either or both of them.” This law also allows for marital rape.

And Sudanese law stipulates that a husband has the right:

  1. "to be taken care of and amicably obeyed; and
  2. to have the wife preserve herself and his property.”

Where Sisters Don’t Inherit As Much As Brothers

Tunisian women are only given half an inherited estate, according to the country’s law, and two daughters are allowed two-thirds of what was willed. But if there’s a brother thrown into the mix, the ratio gets dramatically skewed. “Where there are any sons, the male inherits twice as much as the female,” the law reads. In the United Arab Emirates, the law is almost exactly the same, with men granted double what women are allowed.

Where a Cheating Wife Can Be Killed

Egyptian law proclaims that “Whoever surprises his wife in the act of adultery and kills her on the spot together with her adulterer-partner shall be punished with detention,” rather than the typically ascribed 20 years of hard labor for murder. In Syria, where atrocities against women are many in the midst of civil war, it’s long been legal for a man to murder. Before 2009, a man who killed his wife, sister, daughter or mother when catching her in an “illegitimate sexual act” was exempt from punishment. That changed in 2009, and again in 2011, to stipulate a minimum sentence of five years in prison, but no more than seven.

Where a Woman Can’t Get Divorced

In Israel, where marriages and divorces between Jewish citizens are under rabbinical law, women have a lesser right to leave their husbands than men do their wives. When this inequality was challenged in the Rabbinical High Court in 1995, the judges decided not to force a husband to grant his wife a divorce after six years of separation. Citing ancient Jewish law that states definitively that it can be granted “if the husband wants to divorce her,” the court ruled that: “that the matter depends only on what he wants, and we should therefore grant his appeal.” A judge on that case noted that it would be preferable to be a slave than a wife under Jewish law. What’s more—women are not allowed to serve in these courts. Only in 2013 were they even allowed to sit on the committee that appoints rabbinic judges.

The ancient technicalities of the laws can lead to such complex traps as experienced by a woman in Jerusalem who is unable to marry her partner of 10 years because Jewish law stipulates a separation ceremony must be carried out to release her from her dead husband—and her father-in-law refused to perform the ritual. In September, the city’s Rabbinical Court denied her request to remarry.

A world away, in Mali, a woman has strict guidelines for remarriage after divorce: a divorcee can only find a new husband after waiting of three months, and a widow cannot remarry before four months and 10 days after her husband’s death. If the widow is pregnant she must wait until giving birth.

Where a Woman’s Testimony Doesn’t Count

The right of a witness to testify in a court of law seems indisputable. But in Iran, testimony must be provided by two male witnesses in a standard case. For cases where the punishment is severe, “testimony of two just men and four just women shall be sufficient.” In most sections of the legislation, there must be at least double the number of female witnesses as male. In Iran, it’s also illegal for women to go out in public without proper dress, and violation of this means a sentence of imprisonment or a fine.

Where Women Can’t Get Children Citizenship

A child born out of wedlock to an American father and foreign mother has a trying process to gain US citizenship, with requirements including a written promise by the father to provide financial support, and a longer residency requirement than mother’s. This makes it much harder for foreign women to acquire U.S. citizenship for their children. If the child is over age 18 when attempting to gain citizenship, it will only be granted if the mother already became naturalized.

This law was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1998, and in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent, she wrote: “The law at issue might have made custody or support the relevant criterion. Instead, it treats mothers one way, fathers another, shaping government policy to fit and reinforce the stereotype or historic pattern.”

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