“No woman should be intimidated. But I had no other choice.” Leila, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, described an ordeal that, though it took place years ago, still has an effect on her.
“I stayed late at the office finishing up some work. My boss, who was in his office, casually came into the room. He brushed up against me and began caressing my hair. As I pushed him away, he cornered me.”
Leila, who was in her early 20s at the time, had endured countless advances by her boss, but this time she knew she had to do something.
“This time I was prepared,” she said. “I grabbed an umbrella and hit him on his head. I remember seeing blood dripping from his forehead. I ran out.”
Sound familiar? Unwanted sexual advancements in the workplace are just one type of harassment many women in Lebanon face.
Maha, whose name has also been changed, was harassed in a service taxi. After the other passengers got out of the vehicle, and Maha was the only one left in the car, the driver took a detour away from her destination and asked her out for coffee. Maha, who was 18 at the time, started to panic. “I pleaded with him to take me home,” she said. The driver, who was in his early 50s, ignored her “until I threatened to throw myself from the cab. That’s when he pulled over.” But it didn’t end there. “As I got out of the cab, he slapped my behind.”
“I was humiliated,” Maha said. “At that moment, I felt so helpless.”
But despite the trauma of the incidents, neither Leila nor Maha reported them to the police. “I didn’t want to relive my experience all over again,” said Leila. Besides, she added, “The police don’t do anything about these matters. You have to deal with it yourself. You have to be strong.”
According to Yara Chehayed, a member of Nasawiya, a Lebanese NGO dedicated to raising awareness about harassment, “Women here don’t speak up [about harassment] because sex is considered a taboo. We have a very male-dominated culture.”
Indeed, according to attorney Marie-Rose Zalzal, the majority of victims don’t file cases against the people who harassed them. “Between the interrogation process and facing the attacker, women usually end up dropping the charges,” she told NOW Lebanon.
Besides, there is no mention of sexual harassment in the Penal Code, though certain acts that can be considered sexual harassment have equivalents in the law. For example, verbal harassment can fall under defamation, and physical harassment can fall under unethical behavior or assault.
Nasawiya is working to change this situation through a series of campaigns. “The first step is talking about harassment,” said Farah Kobaissy, Nasawiya’s campaign coordinator, who holds monthly discussion groups to encourage victims of harassment to tell their stories in order to eventually feel comfortable enough to take action.
They also launched a series of short videos called “The Adventures of Salwa.” One episode depicts Salwa at her workplace, where she is harassed by her boss. In exchange for a promotion, he wants sexual favors. The upcoming episode shows Salwa walking along the Corniche, where she sees another woman being harassed and comes to her rescue.
The campaign has been so successful that Nasawiya has been contacted by women in Tunisia and Sudan asking to use “The Adventures of Salwa” to raise awareness in their countries. “This sort of feedback makes us feel that we are truly making a difference,” said Kobaissy. “As women, we need to start claiming our rights.”
The NGO will also be holding a workshop in October to begin writing a draft law that would criminalize sexual harassment and is planning to set up a support line for victims of harassment very soon.