Lebanon, let’s talk
Tackling sexual violence requires a shift in mentality
When Rebecca Dykes was sexually assaulted and tragically murdered by an Uber driver in December 2017, much of the public directed its anger against the driving service, dragging down its competitor, Careem, with it. But blaming Uber drives the discourse away from the real issue: Sexual harassment and violence are bigger than any form of transportation, and they’re not exclusive to the public realm. In December and January, at least 10 other women were murdered in Lebanon— mostly by their partners—according to news reports. The conversation we need to have is about the safety of women in both public and private spaces.
The problem extends across borders, classes, religions, ethnicities, and industries. The World Health Organization estimates that about 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, and often both. Then there is the recent Hollywood can of worms that opened with accusations of sexual harassment leveled against producer Harvey Weinstein, an industry titan, and exploded into the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Whatever the manifestation, the root of the problem is the patriarchy. How do you change a system that is entrenched in our societies? A better question is: Can you stand idle and not even try?
While Lebanon may seem liberal from the outside, it is shockingly behind when it comes to the implementation of women’s rights. In recent years, Lebanon has taken small steps forward thanks to efforts by women’s rights organizations like KAFA, Abaad, and others. A law criminalizing domestic violence (Law 293) was passed in 2014, and the so-called rape law (Article 522 of the criminal code), which allowed rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victim, was repealed in 2017. But the changes and their implementation have drawn criticism. A protest on January 27 called for amendments to Law 293 that would strengthen protections for abused women and enforce penalties on perpetrators. Further legislation is still needed, to outlaw child marriage and marital rape, both of which remain legal in Lebanon., but a bill is said to be in motion to address the former.
Lebanon’s criminal code defines violent crimes against women, such as rape, acts of indecency, or statutory rape, but the criminal code does not define sexual harassment, let alone criminalize it: There are no clear penalties against perpetrators or protections for survivors. Only last year did Jean Ogasapian, the Minister for Women’s Affairs, present a bill to criminalize sexual harassment. It was approved by the cabinet, but has not yet been passed in the Parliament. Activists point out that this draft law isn’t perfect—it defines sexual harassment as an action that “compromises the honor and dignity of the victim,”—but it is atleast a start. Last summer, the American University of Beirut’s Knowledge Is Power, or KIP, project on gender and sexuality, in partnership with the Office of the Minister of State for Women’s Affairs, launched a campaign to highlight that sexual harassment should not be normalized.
The national campaign aimed to raise both awareness of sexual harassment and that it is not okay, using #MeshBasita to
Anecdotal evidence highlight that the lack of legislation on sexual harassment push for legal reform. Sexual harassment happens often in Lebanon, but there is no national data to measure the extent of the problem. Like so many issues in Lebanon without a legal framework in place, civil society has stepped in: Abaad and KAFA are documenting the number of sexual harassment cases in Lebanon, citing Internal Security Forces numbers that say 229 cases were reported between January 2016 and August 2017. In reality, experts suspect the numbers are far greater. Lebanon undoubtedly needs a sexual harassment law, but we also need to raise awareness about the prevalence of abuse, and increase preventive measures, from national campaigns to grassroots solutions. More shelters and networks of community centers would help educate women and men about why sexual harassment is a problem and how to report it, and shift reactions from victim-blaming to investigating the perpetrator. Local community support could also make reporting violence and rehabilitation easier for survivors.
With elections around the corner, it is up to candidates and existing leaders to recognize the problem and propose solutions on multiple levels. Sustainable change takes time and requires adjusting mentalities, not just laws and local mechanism. We need to start by changing how men look at women, through gender-sensitive education in schools, seminars that use real-life examples from Lebanon to shed light on sexual harassment, and media and advertising that is more conscious of the messages they endorse. We need to have more conversations about these topics, to create safe spaces for women to talk and be listened to, and to break through outdated taboos. We need more women in Parliament, and a female minister of women’s affairs. How can we progress as a nation if we fail to treat half our citizens as equals?