BEIRUT: Lebanon’s deteriorating security situation is likely responsible for an increase in incidents of sexual harassment and assault recorded by the police and NGOs. “Two years ago I felt safe,” says 23-year-old Souraya, whose name, along with those of the other women interviewed, has been changed to protect her privacy, “but now, not at all.”
Lt. Colonel Elie Asmar, who heads the Internal Security Forces department dealing with sex crimes, confirms that the number of cases of rape, sexual assault and verbal harassment has escalated over the past two years.
ISF statistics show that a total of 59 reports of harassment and assault were filed in the first six months of 2011. This number increased to 65 in the first six months of 2012 and has already been topped during the first five months of this year, during which time 69 cases have been reported.
Souraya and others say that their experiences of men staring and shouting – or doing far worse – on the streets has increased in recent months. Two years ago, when men whistled and catcalled “I used to get very angry,” Souraya recalls. “But now I just pretend I didn’t hear them.”
Physical assault is also becoming more common, according to ISF statistics. Michelle, 30, describes an attack on her roommate last August.
“She asked [a man] for directions on the Mar Mikhael steps,” she says, “and he led her down an alleyway and started masturbating. He was saying ‘Are you scared of me, are you scared of me?’ She had a bag full of books and she tried to hit him with it, but he punched her in the face and gave her a black eye.”
If previous years are anything to go by, incidents are set to escalate further in coming months. Asmar says that there is always a spike in harassment during the summer season, and ISF figures demonstrate an increase of roughly 50 percent in the number of rapes, sexual assaults and other crimes of harassment committed between January and June each year, and those committed between July and December.
These figures may represent just a fraction of the total number of incidents.
Although Asmar stresses that both verbal and physical harassment are punishable under the law, NGOs say that the legal system is ill-equipped to successfully prosecute offenders, one of several reasons why many victims do not report their experiences of harassment to the police.
Aware that incidents were frequently going unreported, feminist collective Nasawiya last year launched a hotline for victims of assault and harassment to share their experiences and receive advice and support.
Social activist Nadine Moawad, who handles the phone line, says that the number of calls they receive remains fairly low, an average of five or six per month, but that it has been steadily increasing since the hotline’s launch in January 2012.
“We’re getting a lot more calls than we used to,” Moawad says. “I think it goes with general violence in the country. When the security situation is so [unstable] and you can’t trust the Army, you can’t trust the police to stop gunmen fighting each other, then of course all of our security levels drop, because we get scared.”
“Women in particular get more scared about gender-based violence,” she continues. “Trust in the police force has gone down so much that I think there’s definitely more violence, for sure ... But I’m also very sure that more people are reporting this because more people are talking about it.”
Raghida Ghamlouch, a social worker with the Lebanese Council to Resist Violence against Women, says her organization usually receives around 10 calls per month reporting cases of sexual harassment and assault, adding that it has also witnessed an increase in calls in recent months. She attributes this in part to the efficacy of campaigns to raise awareness, but confirms that incidents are also becoming more frequent.
By contrast Rima Abinader, project manager at the Listening and Counseling Center at KAFA, an NGO that deals mostly with marital violence and rape, says that they haven’t registered an increase in incidents, perhaps indicating that the rise in this type of crime is limited to public spaces.
Given that the rise in incidents corresponds to the onset of war in neighboring Syria, one of the major causes of the deteriorating security situation, Moawad fears that it will be automatically linked to the recent influx of Syrian refugees into the country.
“I worry about people racializing their fear,” she says. “It’s very easy to blame the foreign workers or refugees. That’s the easiest thing to do, and it’s a false correlation to make.”
Asmar emphasizes that harassment comes from multiples sources. “There is an increase in the Syrian harassers,” he says, “but not all the harassers are Syrians. You can find Lebanese offenders; you can find Palestinians, Egyptians – all the nationalities.”
By contrast Noha Roukoss, who works with the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center and coordinates with the judiciary when migrant workers or refugees are charged or arrested for criminal acts, says that the number of arrests of Syrian nationals in connection with cases involving harassment or assault has not increased. Most arrests, she says, are made in connection with begging or theft, which stem from poverty. A climate of fear has led to distrust of strangers, she says.
Asmar attributes the increase to three factors: the affordability of mobile phones with Internet service, which provides easy access to pornography, high unemployment, which he says means that many young men spend all day on the streets and will harass women out of boredom, and the proliferation of areas of the city full of bars and nightclubs, where he says most incidents of harassment occur.
Moawad believes that part of the problem stems from a sense of immunity on the part of the harasser.
“There’s no depending on the police whatsoever,” she says. “Usually when they do react it’s in a very macho way. There was one incident where they beat a guy up, and this is not what we want to see happen ... respond[ing] to violence with more violence [is] not the solution.”
Leila, 24, reports witnessing police respond to harassment physically.
“I was in Dikwaneh and I heard a girl screaming in the street,” she says. “She was in a service taxi and she got out and screamed ‘He touched me, he touched me.’ A huge group of men pulled [the perpetrator] out of the car and started beating him. The police came and yelled ‘Stop, stop, what are you doing?’ They told them the story and they started beating him too.”
Other women recount instances in which the police simply laughed at their story or even sexually harassed the victims themselves, resulting in a lack of confidence among many women that the authorities will take cases seriously or follow up on them. As a result, several of the women interviewed say they turn to family members or friends for help.
“I had a stalker,” says Leila. “He got my phone number from my car number plate. He was talking to me on Viber all the time, telling me ‘I know where you live.’ Eventually I told my cousin and he said ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.’ I don’t know what happened, but it stopped.”
Self-defense teacher and Senshido expert Georges Fahmy says the women he teaches have increasingly encountered harassment on the streets. To ensure safety he advises against carrying pepper spray, which risks being used against the victim or further enraging an attacker. Instead, he says, women should carry a powerful flashlight when walking at night and shine it into an attacker’s eyes to disorient them.
The most important thing, he says, is to be aware of your surroundings when walking alone, particularly at night. “Every time you’re listening to music,” he says, “or you have something in your ears ... you’re just basically killing your most important senses: hearing and vision.”