Victims of harassment speak out in Lebanon

BEIRUT, April 28 (AFP) - On three occasions Doha had to jump out of her cab when the driver assaulted her in broad daylight. But now she has joined a growing number of women in Lebanon who speak out against sexual harassment.

While the subject remains taboo to a large part in the tiny Arab country on the eastern Mediterranean, a group of activists have launched a campaign to raise awareness.

A television ad features a young employee named Salwa who is summoned by her boss. When she enters his office, he is sprawled out in his chair, cigar in hand, and slyly holds out a promotion form to her.

Salwa happily reaches out for the form when the boss tries to kiss her. Red with anger, she deals him a blow with her handbag before slamming the door as she leaves.

"We are not preaching violence. Our message aims to encourage women to defend themselves and not to fear social stigma," said Leen Hashem of local non-government organisation IndyACT which is supporting the campaign.

Although Lebanon is widely considered more "Westernised" than its neighbours in the Arab world, it does not penalise what the West would consider sexual harassment, such as unwanted comments or touching.

On a daily basis, local women continue to suffer harassment in the streets, workplace and while using public transport.

According to a 2007 study by the social affairs ministry, three complaints of harassment and rape are filed in Lebanon each week. But activists say the figure falls far short of the reality.

"Unfortunately, this phenomenon is increasing," Hashem said. "For many female victims of harassment, the issue remains taboo. Our slogan is, 'Don't shy away -- speak out.'"

Raghida Ghamlouch, a social worker with the non-governmental Lebanese Council to Resist Violence Against Women, said Lebanon's social fabric does not encourage victims to speak out.

"Lebanese society is still macho and systematically places the blame on the woman," Ghamlouch told AFP.

"Women are told it is their fault if they hitch a cab off the street, if they are dressed a certain way, if they come home late, and so forth," she added.

"And for women who are adults, it is even worse: They are accused of having deliberately provoked the man."

Another factor that silences victims are Lebanon's unjust laws, which do not explicitly consider harassment a crime.

And a convicted rapist in Lebanon is let off the hook if he consents to marry his victim.

"Even police mock women who come in to their station to file complaints of harassment or domestic violence," Hashem said.

Ghamlouch noted that Lebanese authorities have yet to understand that these victims are scarred for life and sometimes require psychological intervention to overcome the trauma.

"Victims tend to give up, because they realise they will be victims whatever they do," she added.

Eighteen-year-old Joy is a case in point. Shaking, she recounts the day a taxi-driver touched her genital area.

"I screamed and cried but he did not stop," Joy told AFP. "I had to throw myself out of the car. I felt hurt and betrayed. Those who harass women ought to go to jail."

While Salwa and her campaign are a significant step forward, activists say more collective action is needed to ensure victims feel safe enough to speak up and take action.

"If the complaints increase, perhaps then the authorities cannot discount it," Hashem said. "Perhaps then they will see it is a real problem." (By Rana Moussaoui/ AFP)

MySinchew 2010.04.28