BEIRUT: Over two-thirds of expatriate women in the capital have been sexually harassed, according to the results of a new survey by an activist group. The figures are likely just as high for Lebanese women, the group’s leader said, with complaints by women ranging from verbal harassment and catcalls to violent sexual assault.
“In their daily lives, Lebanese women and expatriates are experiencing harassment, whether verbal or physical,” said Tarek Abouzeinab, who launched the anti-harassment initiative.
Dubbed “Shuft Taharrush” (I’ve seen harassment), the campaign was launched by “Say No To Violence Against Women,” an activist group, and is modeled on similar drives in Tunisia and Egypt, where grassroots organizations have emerged to combat widespread sexual assaults at political rallies.
The survey is the latest step in the campaign by the group, which is composed of pro bono lawyers and volunteers tracking harassment cases in various parts of Lebanon, and a hotline that receives harassment complaints.
“The goal ... is to ensure victims get their rights and to break the wall of silence,” the group said in a statement sent to The Daily Star.
More than 900 women responded to the survey, which was carried out in places that are frequented by expatriate women, including malls and churches.
The survey found that 69 percent of expatriate women in Lebanon “are subjected to harassment in all its forms and types as well as continuous and unrelenting violence, discrimination and harsh treatment.”
The group said that sexual harassment in the workplace is especially common for women in Lebanon, who face a threat of being laid off if they report the incidents.
The group appealed to Lebanese officials and human rights organizations to contribute to the fight against sexual harassment, and called on individuals to report harassment cases and on families to teach equality of the sexes to their children.
The campaign organizers say that the rate and type of harassment varies by location.
For example, sexual exploitation of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria is more common in areas where refugees congregate, such as in the Bekaa Valley and Tripoli.
In Beirut, harassment is more common at the workplace and in the street, as well as in locations known for their nightlife, like Hamra or Gemmayzeh.
Abouzeinab said the complaints his group received span the spectrum of harassment, from sexual assault to verbal harassment and even staring, activities which he said can cause women to feel threatened.
He said that technology is making it harder for women to avoid unwanted sexual attention, with many receiving explicit texts via mobile instant messaging programs.
Abouzeinab said that expat women face harassment at work, whether in the office or in jobs which involve interaction with the public, such as waitressing, where employers try to force them to behave in a more intimate manner with customers.
Some companies even require women who apply for jobs to have certain physical features, including height and weight requirements, he said.
Abouzeinab said a major problem in combating harassment was getting people to overcome the fear of reporting it and to restore their faith in the judicial system, where they can seek justice.
“In Lebanon there is no freedom to speak, there is fear of breaking the silence barrier among men and women,” he said.
Abouzeinab said the group was still gathering data on harassment in other areas of the country as well as statistics on the phenomenon among Lebanese women, and was working to ensure that the privacy of victims is respected.
He urged Lebanese parliamentarians to pass a comprehensive anti-harassment bill, and said the group would campaign for such a law. He also said that local police should patrol areas known for their vibrant nightlife more frequently to prevent harassment.
The campaign’s hotline, which was launched during Eid, has so far received over 192 telephone complaints. The group also received 290 email inquiries on harassment.
Abouzeinab said the group would also begin looking into cases of sexual harassment of children, while ensuring privacy for victims.
The hotline for reporting sexual harassment is 03-980-603.