BEIRUT: When Claire was 18, she looked forward to starting a career, to branching out from her family’s business and developing her own ambitions. That changed after a series of incidents of sexual harassment convinced her that joining her parents’ company was the best way to protect herself from further problems.
The problems started on her first job, as a researcher at a local Lebanese television network, where one of the managers, who knew her family, took her under his wing.
“I was preparing a proposal for a documentary and he offered to help,” she says. In the weeks leading up to the presentation “we became good friends, close friends.”
On the day of the pitch this ‘good friend’ sat in on the meeting.
“While we were leaving the office, we went down the stairs, and he grabbed me,” she recalls. “He put his hands behind my head. He grabbed my neck and wanted to kiss me, in a very sexual way.
“I pushed him, then he tried it again. He felt that I was obliged to do it.”
This is the first in a litany of similar incidents Claire can reel off the top of her head that have happened to her and her friends – “there are many more, but I guess this is just the outline,” she says after describing a few – and her experiences are familiar to working women of all ages in Lebanon.
“I was talking about this topic with a girlfriend of mine,” who was working at a different television channel, she says. “[One of the owners] asked her to go for a meeting in his office. She thought she was maybe getting a raise, or he was going to promote her. “As soon as she went in, he opened his pants and showed his genitals to her.”
After she refused, “he told her ‘If you don’t want that, all the girls out there working for me would do it, so if it’s not you, it’s gonna be someone else.’”
However, harassment isn’t always quite so overt and the International Labor Organization includes both verbal harassment, and nonverbal in its definition of sexual harassment, including comments made about co-workers’ appearance and displaying sexual materials.
Josiane says that even at the multinational company she works for, sexual harassment is rife, although often indirect. “There was one incident here when the manager of a warehouse said of the human resources manager during a meeting ‘If that girl worked for me I would have raped her,’” she says.
She has come to accept such behavior. “When you work in business this is what it’s like. It’s really tough.”
Lebanon currently has no regulation over sexual harassment in the workplace. The only mention of the topic in the penal code stipulates that victims have the right to leave their workplace without having to give notice.
Women’s rights group Nasawiya and human rights lawyer Nizar Saghieh are currently in the final stages of editing a draft law that would require companies to commit to anti-sexual harassment policies, and would impose fines and possible jail time on perpetrators. The bill will soon be sent to the labor and justice ministries.
As part of the research for the law, Saghieh has looked for cases where sexual harassment has been brought before employment tribunals. So far, he has not found a single case of recorded sexual harassment, but says tribunal judges often report hearing testimony of incidents during unfair dismissal cases, which is never written down.
“We are relying more on the testimonies of judges, of people from the Labor Ministry who are attending the hearings, than on documents. Because we know that it’s more complicated than any other case, that there are lots of taboos,” he says.
The draft legislation stipulates that companies must enforce a code of conduct for employees to refrain from any form of verbal or physical sexual harassment, and requires companies to hire a mediator at the request of any employee making a complaint of sexual harassment.
Under the draft law, sexual harassment is a sackable offense, and if found guilty perpetrators are liable for a fine of between 10 and 20 times the monthly minimum wage. This is doubled if the harassment is of a quid pro quo nature, that is, if something is offered in return for sexual favors. Such harassment would also carry up to a one-month prison sentence.
Nasawiya held five workshops along with the lawyers, judges, unions and other activists over several months in the process of drafting the law.
Farah Kobaissy, an activist with Nasawiya who was behind the anti-harassment campaign Salwa, says that attempting to pass a law over such a taboo subject may be a battle but rejects the idea that the attempt is futile.
“It’s not having the law [in place] as much as the process of getting the law that’s important,” she says. She cites the process of the draft law against domestic violence, which has been stalled in parliamentary committee stages since 2010 as an example.
“The subject started to become a public debate,” she says. “Two years ago it was not discussed at all.”
Saghieh hopes the sexual harassment draft law will be able to bypass some of the hurdles faced by the domestic violence draft law, which was blocked by religious groups because of its challenge to the religious family court system.
“There is a big difference in that here we are talking about social life and with domestic violence we are talking about family,” he says.
But he too believes that the value of the draft law goes beyond its impact on legislation. “Put yourself in the place of a woman who is a victim of violence,” he says.
“As a public discourse the draft law is a message addressed to them that you are not alone and there are people who are aiming to adopt such laws.”
Claire never reported any of the sexual harassment incidents that she experienced. She says she didn’t think about telling anyone, “because I knew it wasn’t going to lead me anywhere. I knew that I couldn’t do anything about it.”
Josiane agrees that reporting often seems pointless. “I’ve got used to it. I don’t make a big issue out of it. Am I going to report [it] to the HR manager when he is just as bad?”
Claire says she would welcome the introduction of legislation, not only because she believes a stringent law would directly reduce incidents of sexual harassment, but also because she believes it would challenge the taboo.
“We would have hope, women would have hope. The more the laws, the more the restrictions, the more people would start thinking of work in a professional way and not to use sexuality to achieve success,” she says. “When there is hope, women will go out and talk.”
Given the slow pace of Lebanon’s legislative process, there may well be a protracted debate over the topic in the coming months.