“A year ago, he randomly sat next to me in Hamra and started asking me random questions. He asked me what’s my height, he mentioned that he is much taller, so he is able to flip me and get creative with it. He then proceeded to open his legs and ask me if I can read body language, I ran away.”
The above quote is by a young woman sharing her experience with sexual harassment at the hand of none other than Marwan Habib. An article published on November 29, 2019 on Beirut.com exposed eleven testimonials out of over 50 women who shared similar horrid experiences at the hands of the same predator. Marwan Habib, the serial harasser, appeared on MTV on a Monday night alongside Joe Maalouf and Kareem Majbour, the lawyer defending the women, in an open Q&A session. Consequently, a lawsuit was filed by Mr. Majbour against Marwan and is still in progress so far.
In the early hours of February 16th, 2020, a wave of naming and shaming sexual harassers and abusers engulfed the social media platform Twitter. What started off as a few individuals sharing stories about the victims, who were at least ten, of one harasser snowballed into a local #MeToo campaign. For many hours, victims shared their stories anonymously with the users who began this movement who then posted them for people to see. The stories ranged from consistent harassment through text, to groping and unwanted advances, to rape. Many of the victims who stepped forward specified that they were underage when they were assaulted, with the knowledge of their abusers. One too many shared stories of traumatic childhood assault that they could not speak about until that night. These are not unlike the stories that almost every woman has gone through since childhood or heard of from a friend.
If the issue is so prevalent, the obvious question to ask is why it is so difficult for victims to publicly speak up against the harassment that they face. How is it that the case of Marwan Habib which received over 50 testimonials (a smaller number appeared in front of law enforcement officials) still hasn’t been closed? And how come people like Marwan Habib or the countless offenders who were named yesterday can still roam freely? The problem, other than the harassers themselves, also lies within our judicial system. Here is a list of the flaws in the Lebanese laws:
- The first flaw that exists is the fact that the Lebanese law does not give a clear definition of what sexual harassment is.
- Rape is only a criminal offense when it is outside of marriage; marital rape is explicitly excluded (article 503).
- Despite the fact that issues related to sexual harassment are intrinsic to our understandings of the partiarchal society we are in, the laws cocerning SH are written in neutral and legalistic terms. This leaves leeway for the laws to be interpreted in several ways, more often than not reproducing male privilege and rape culture.
- Many prosecutions are halted or stopped in the case of a valid marriage. For example, article 505 recognizes that sex with a minor is a criminal offence unless in the case of a valid marriage.
- There is no direct provision that deals with and criminalizes sexual harassment.
If it wasn’t bad enough that there aren’t enough laws to protect all women, but the present ones are just unreliable and ineffective. In addition, the process of filing a complaint or a lawsuit gets hijacked way too often by some political party affiliated with the perpetrator. According to Mr. Majbour’s tweet about Marwan Habib that was posted on January 19, 2020, “the judicial system is being pressured by a certain political party, although the video presented to the police clearly shows an act of sexual harassment.”
In a 2018 policy brief by Mona Khneisser, a researcher at the American University of Beirut, Khneisser discusses the importance of how we frame sexual harassment incidents. Describing them as ‘moral’ concerns is negative as it “detaches SH against women from its systemic nature, framing it, instead, as individual, moral harm.” Khneisser also recommends policy considerations to reframe the issue and provide proper legislation to protect victims of sexual harassment. One such recommendation concerns the “burden of proof”. The existing laws place a large burden on the victim to provide compelling proof against their harasser, not taking into account any emotional or psychological harm in addition to any future harm. Even drafts for reformative laws do not tackle this issue despite it being a main obstacle between victims and their justice.
Over the years, slow change can be witnessed in the legal system concerning sexual harassment and abuse. A prominent reform that was made in 2017 when article 522, which allowed men to avoid punishment for rape provided they have a marriage contract with their victim, was abolished in August 2017 thanks to the advocation of the NGO Abaad. In addition, MP Ghassan Moukheiber submitted a law proposal which criminalizes sexual harassment and racial abuse in 2014, which was later denied in January 2017 due to the disapproval of other MPs because of “misuse against employers” concerns. Moukheiber later worked alongside Jean Ogasapian and drafted a law incorporating sexual harassment laws at the levels of penal law and labor law.
Without drastic change in the ruling and legal class, there is little room for change in these outdated laws. Change on the social level is also needed as many attribute the high rates of sexual harassment to many aspects of the patriarchal system, which includes proper sex education. What we witness is that even if women end up speaking up about their experiences, they immediately get shut down by other members of society and authorities by asking them sexist, non-related questions with a victim blaming attitude such as “what were you wearing?”, “were you drinking?”, and “why were you out so late at night?”.
Even though the steps taken were small, they’re still steps. We still have a long way to go, but so long as the Lebanese people continue showing their disapproval, assembling in protests, taking people to court, and working in activism and advocacy for the greater good, then hopefully we’re getting there.