The popular uprising (Thawra) that broke out in October 2019 highlighted the magnitude of the challenge within a patriarchal and machismo society, which continues to discriminate against its women in its legislation and practices.
The Lebanese women joined the protests where they expressed their frustrations, with slogans, demands, songs and dances. But such a movement has started long before, when in 2016 the digital platform "HarassTracker" was launched to inform women on how to protect themselves and warn off their harassers. But can we say that fear has dissipated and women are talking freely about this problem? What is the role of the Thawra in this development? And will the feminist demands be heard by an establishment which, for years, has promised in vain to make this cause its priority?
The story of a tarnished reputation
Randa has suffered from harassment for seven years at her workplace. She was 25 years old when she was raped by her employer, and forced into having regular sexual relations with him. He continuously threatened to fire her when she refuses to meet him in his office. The young woman finally filed a complaint after suffering from deep depression and unfair dismissal. "I have endured all these years because I needed to work. But I ended up resorting to justice with the support of my family, to flee this hell,” she revealed, hoping that summoning her former tormentor to the Hobeish police station in Beirut will pay off. When her boss denied all wrongdoing, and tried to tarnish her reputation, she emphasized: "I'm not the only woman facing such a situation.” She explained that she filed a complaint “so that all female employees do not end up being victims like me; so that they do not allow their bosses to destroy their lives, the way my boss destroyed mine."
Nayla * has not filed a complaint yet. She chose to keep as evidence the sexual messages sent to her by the campaign director of the political party to which she is affiliated. She promises to use them as soon as a law against sexual harassment is adopted. "I was considering to stand for election. He persistently requested sexual favors from me, knowing fully well that I was married and that I was not interested", she said. So when she told her supervisor that she refuses to have sex with him, he hurriedly informed the party leader that she was "useless and inefficient." "Of course, my chances have evaporated", she said regretfully, stating that now she fully understands why women do not reach leadership positions. But it was nothing compared to what she felt. "I felt guilty while I did nothing wrong. I still feel I want to throw up."
Unfortunate experiences such as those of Randa and Nayla are numerous in Lebanon. And if the vast majority of women are reluctant to openly denounce sexual harassment of which they are victims, it is because "the society generally blames them" for what it considers as an attack on their honor, said activist Ghida Anani, co-founder of the feminist NGO Abaad. "Not to mention the consequences, including the willingness to tarnish their reputation", said Nay Ra’i, founder of HarassTracker. “Thus, it is not surprising that no law has seen the light to put an end to these violations of women’s rights.”
A new generation with an avant-garde discourse
At the heart of the rallies organized during the popular uprising, the new generation, not only the activists, seems to be advancing a new civic reflection that is quickly gaining ground. "Not only have young women made their mark in the public arena, but they have successfully articulated their rights, needs and demands with precision, including the demand for protection from all forms of harassment", said Anani, welcoming "a very advanced discourse: the result of obvious awareness". This discourse was accompanied on social networks, by a campaign which turned into a manhunt against individuals accused of sexual harassment, including the infamous Marwan H. "It is obvious that since October 17, freedom of speech has been unleashed,” said Nay Ra'i. “On social media and in the streets, women are sharing their bad experiences, divulging names, and denouncing the power of thugs, because they now feel more protected. This is probably thanks to the emerging solidarity towards them, which is also being expressed by men, and which is a first step towards justice. As for the younger ones, who are attentive to the claims of their elders, they now want to understand. "Teenage girls are challenging me on the issue and are demanding to be informed during discussion groups about their freedom of decision", said Zahraa Dirany, a young leader from the "She Decides" pro-feminist campaign.
Others, including attorney Karim Nammur and the feminist association Nasawiya, consider that liberalization of speech was initiated by the #MeToo movement, which has encouraged women to speak out on rape and sexual assault. Nammur, a member of Legal Agenda, is behind a 2012 law proposal against sexual bullying and harassment. "Anyway, it shows that the debate has become public, and is showing the extent of harassment against women in Lebanon", he noted.
Media support of women
Even the media has been affected by this wave of free speech and is speaking out more openly against sexual harassment. "This is to the point that kissing female TV reporters, once considered a cute thing, is no longer tolerated,” said Myra Abdullah, program director for “Women in News”. "In fact, this wave started well before the October uprising, and stems from demands for social justice", she said. It has "grown with the Thawra, given the significant role of women in public debates, pushing the society to have a different look at women in particular".
The media has also played an important role in supporting women, according to Manar Zeaiter, a lawyer and women’s rights specialist at ESCWA. Zeaiter salutes "the press’ permanent engagement towards women victims of abuse and violence". During a period of four months, the popular uprising has broken both feminine and political taboos. "But this is still not enough. What matters now is that women are not alone in this fight”.
The perceived change is not limited to speaking about sexual harassment, but also includes now "the entire social debate." AFE Research Center director Noor Nasr also stressed the need to look at the issue in relation to the "woman’s consent". Referring to the accusations against Marwan H., Nasr noted that "the mobilization of women made it possible, for the first time in Lebanon, to bring a case of sexual harassment to justice".
On March 3, a few days before International Women's Day, the Lebanese National Commission for Women (CNFL), chaired by Claudine Aoun Roukoz, presented a bill criminalizing sexual harassment in an apparent response to the street demands. The move, put forward through George Adwan, an MP affiliated to the Lebanese Forces, aspires to be "avant-garde", and intends to "combine previous proposals and projects," by proposing amendments to the penal code and the labor code. "We have gone very far,” said Roukoz to L' Orient-Le Jour. “But at the same time, we have chosen a definition of harassment that will not be contested in Parliament”. Without a law to criminalize sexual harassment, Lebanese women cannot hope for any real breakthrough regarding this issue.
* First names have been changed
(This article has originally been published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 7th of March)