Ye Ashta! Shou, ya amar? Shooo tayyyeb! Smallah, shou hal taztouz! Yikhzil 3ayn… These expressions, and a plethora of other, more vulgar and less humorous ones, are familiar to the average woman in Lebanon. So too is the conspicuous movement of the taxi-driver’s mirror, (repositioned to get the best view of a female passenger’s legs), the driver who slows down his car to proposition a girl as she walks on the street and the male passenger on the bus who relaxes so as to make it impossible for his leg to not brush hers.
And though most females have been exposed to such behavior – or worse – at some point or another, many brush it off as a sad “reality” in Lebanon, rarely giving it a second thought. This behavior, says Rasha Moumneh, a social worker at the non-governmental organization Kafa, has “become normalized socially. It falls under the boys-will-be-boys type of thinking.”
In fact though, this reality is a serious matter and is indicative of a larger trend of sexual violence, which, although often kept quiet, is more rampant than many would like to think. In fact, approximately one-third of Lebanese women are victims of harassment, assault or verbal abuse.
The head of the Women’s Rights division at the Foundation for Human and Humanitarian Rights (Lebanon), Lina Osseiran Beydoun, said that the underlying problem is that there is no specific law that protects females from the various forms of sexual harassment, let alone a clear definition of the term itself. This is in part because “no one is coming forward and breaking the wall of silence,” said Beydoun, who also added that this leads to a culture of under-reporting and a lack of awareness.
According to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, sexual harassment is defined as entailing “unwelcome sexually-determined behavior, such as physical contact and advances, sexually colored remarks, showing pornography and sexual demands, whether by words or by actions.” In most developed countries, a wide range of forms of sexual harassment are prohibited by law.
The Lebanese constitution is clear on the equality of rights between males and females, but with the exception of case of rape, there are no specific laws or penal codes that prohibit sexual harassment. Layla Mroue, a social activist at the Lebanese Council to Resist Violence against Women (LCRVW), told NOW Lebanon that cases of sexual harassment in Lebanon are extremely commonplace and that the underlying reasons for its prevalence are that women are perceived and treated as if they are of a “lower status,” that they are considered a sexual “object,” and because, in addition to gender discrimination, there is widespread societal sexual repression.
Sexual harassment typically occurs in the workplace, in school or university, on the street and even within the family. People who commit the act can be bosses, family members or passersby in the street. One young female journalist, who wished to remain anonymous, told NOW Lebanon that one of her sources, a high-ranking civil servant, propositioned her in exchange for a scoop. Rural women and domestic workers are also highly susceptible to sexual harassment and abuse.
One significant problem is that sexual violence of all kinds is under-reported for a variety of reasons. Rima, a 26-year-old woman, told NOW Lebanon that when she went to the police station to report that she had been assaulted by a male colleague, the police officers on duty laughed at her and made lewd remarks. That experience sheds some light on why so many women who have been exposed to sexual harassment are often too scared to come forward, fearing that the incident will be interpreted as their fault.
“Women are scared to report cases of assault,” Mroue noted, “especially if there is no rape or no form of proof. If a woman goes to a police station in such a situation, they will not be taken seriously.” Moumneh agreed, noting that the Internal Security Force is not aware about how to deal with these issues, and hence, very few people will come forward or press charges.
Though Lebanese law prohibits rape (with a sentence of at least five years in prison; seven if the victim is a minor), further action needs to be taken with regard to protecting women from less extreme forms of sexual violence. Moreover, the rape law itself is problematic. The law allows rape charges to be dropped when the perpetrator of a rape marries the victim, a situation that some woman may accept due to social pressures. According to Moumneh, however, such a provision “essentially condones rape.”
Civil society takes action
There are several NGOs which specialize in Lebanese women’s issues: the Lebanese Women’s Council, LCRVAW, the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering, Association Dar el Amal and Kafa. Few, however, work specifically on the issue of protecting women against violence. Among the few is the LCRVAW, which provides counseling services and legal advice for victims of sexual assault and promotes awareness about the issue though the media.
“In the first instance,” Mroue said, the organization “listens to women who have been exposed to sexual harassment, teaching them about their legal rights and how to deal with harassment… Our goal is to challenge the notion that women are weak and, hence, that they cannot defend themselves or report assault.” The organization also lobbies for amending discriminatory laws in the penal code and introducing new laws that will offer more protection to women.
In the absence of data on gender-based harassment and assault, it is difficult to assess just how rampant sexual violence is in Lebanon. What is obvious is that this problem once again highlights the absence of the state and the difficulties that NGOs face in attempting to fill the gap. Moumneh notes that although the Ministry of Social Affairs has recently attempted to address the issue through cooperation with various NGOs, “the bulk of the work falls on the shoulders of the NGOs.” Some NGOs are indeed struggling with addressing the matter.
In addition, the laws that are in place must be revised through the Parliamentary Committee for Penal Code Reform (currently stagnant), and the Ministry of Social Affairs must take a heavier hand in raising awareness about sexual harassment and violence and in providing support to women who are victims of assault. The police also need to be better trained to deal well with these complaints, as opposed to shun them or laugh them off.
As Moumneh said, “This should be the state’s issue; the state should accept a bit more responsibility for the welfare of its citizens on this issue and many, many, others… This is still an issue that is behind closed doors, and if people don’t push it forward it won’t come up on its own.”
The insidiousness of certain forms of degradation toward women unfortunately means that many people, both men and women, simply see it as a fact of life. This is the kind of mentality that causes many a woman to shrug off even the crudest verbal insult or to pity the older man who makes inappropriate physical advances on her. Condoning behavior that objectifies and marginalizes women, however, merely fuels the idea that women do or should serve a subservient and secondary role in society. Rather than accept these things as unchangeable, Lebanese people should challenge degrading and discriminatory practices. Just because harassment is “a fact of life” doesn’t mean it must be; realities change, and so too do societies.