BEIRUT: While at home one day, 30-year-old Yara received a message from her manager. She opened the message, which revealed a photo, taken from outside, of her apartment building. She was scared - she’d never given her boss her address. The photo was accompanied by a question: Could he come in for a drink?
At that time, Yara, whose name has been changed at her request, worked at a marketing agency. She didn’t let her boss into her apartment that day, but there was no way she could report the incident.
“I didn’t know what to do, I was scared to lose my job,” she told The Daily Star.
“I didn’t want to complain because he was close to the directors. ... I was scared he would spin it [as] my fault or say that I led him on in some way. So it’s best to say nothing because there’s no protection.”
Nothing in either the Labor Law or the Penal Code references sexual harassment, leaving women like Yara with no legal framework through which to address a complaint.
There are signs that Parliament is inching toward rectifying the complete lack of legislation on sexual harassment, but disagreements over what it should look like go to the heart of Lebanon’s economic structures and gender dynamics.
Accurate statistics on workplace sexual harassment are nonexistent, Rayan Majed, a communications officer for women’s rights NGO KAFA - Enough Violence and Exploitation, told The Daily Star.
This makes it difficult to know exactly how widespread the problem is. “We cannot say a number but it’s frequent,” she said.
Activists and lawmakers have been aware of the need to try to address the lack of legislation for some years.
In 2012, The Legal Agenda NGO drafted a comprehensive proposal to reform both the Labor Law and the Penal Code, but it failed to get accepted into Parliament. In 2014, then-MP Ghassan Moukheiber submitted a law to criminalize sexual harassment through reform of the Penal Code, but it fell by the wayside.
In 2017, then-Minister of State for Women’s Affairs Jean Ogasapian submitted a proposal calling for amendments to the Labor Law prohibiting harassment “to obtain services of a sexual nature.” It was approved by Cabinet in March 2017 but has progressed no further.
Some months ago Parliament combined elements of both the Ogasapian and Moukheiber proposals, and submitted it to the National Commission for Lebanese Women, which is consulted by Parliament on matters related to gender and plans to return the draft with its comments in the coming months.
For some victims of sexual harassment, changes to the law can’t come soon enough.
Ghida, a 29-year-old woman who works at a coffee shop in Beirut, told The Daily Star she used to frequently experience harassment while working previous jobs in the hospitality industry. “I’ve had slaps on the ass and they think it’s a joke,” she said. Harassment was not only physical, Ghida added, but could include “bad words ... stares [and] being undermined.”
Ghida, who also requested that her name be changed, wants a law in place because “they’ll know their limits. ... Once this is established, they’ll know any action that you do will have a consequence and they’ll lose their jobs, go to jail or pay a fine.”
How much weight to give to psychological, rather than physical, harassment has been one of the major points of contention for proposed legislation to date.
Karim Nammour, a lawyer with The Legal Agenda who was involved with the drafting of the group’s 2012 proposal, said that in his experience psychological harassment was by far the more common type.
As a result, Nammour said, The Legal Agenda “lightened the burden of proof to the victim,” making it easier for victims to bring cases despite the lack of either a physical injury or even lasting psychological damage.
This issue is one of the main things holding up any potential bill’s progress through Parliament.
“Harassment laws make legislators and jurists in general very uncomfortable because the facts are very much related to the subjectivity of the victim,” Nammour said.
Rania Jazairi, a board member of the NCLW and a member of its legal committee, said that one of MPs’ main concerns with existing proposals was that legislation might be misused against employers.
“Our response is to make sure to emphasize that the burden of proof is on the victim,” she said. The NCLW’s proposals require “cold hard evidence,” such as a recording.
Another sensitive issue involves power dynamics in the workplace.
“They’re not regular employees, these things happen from the hierarchy,” Ghida said of her harassers.
“They’re usually the managers or the owners because they think you work for them so they can do whatever they want.”
That dynamic was a major factor in Ghida’s decision not to take action: “I worked as a waitress and got a promotion to pay for my tuition, so I couldn’t afford to lose my job.”
The NCLW has adopted a comprehensive definition of sexual harassment that, Jazairi said, “clearly shows that it can occur between any person, regardless of hierarchy.”
But Nammour said it was important to specifically address power dynamics since employees will be less likely to take action against abuse because of the employer’s much stronger position.
Jazairi said that the NCLW’s proposals would offer sufficient backing to victims by putting in place measures that would protect accusers from repercussions.
She added that the NCLW advocated dispensing with time limits, so victims would not have to file a complaint immediately after the act for the claim to be valid.
Furthermore, she said the NCLW was supportive of plans to amend the Penal Code. She said this would “protect anyone from sexual harassment.” Nevertheless, “if anyone submits a claim in bad faith ... there will be disciplinary measures.”
One of Nammour’s main concerns with relying on criminal proceedings is that this would inevitably lead to an employee losing their job. “It’s very important that the law recognizes this issue and finds the mechanism that won’t lead to litigation between employer and employee,” he said.
The Legal Agenda’s 2012 proposal advocated mediation as a possible solution, which Jazairi said the NCLW had rejected. “Mediation is not valid. We’re considering sexual harassment as a criminal act. ... There’s prevention, investigation and punishment,” she said.
According to Charlotte Karam, a professor at the American University of Beirut who works on gender issues, employees in the informal workplace are at particular risk of sexual harassment and are in danger of being excluded from new legislation.
Certain groups, such as domestic and agricultural workers, are excluded from the Labor Law per its Article 7, but “are likely to be the most vulnerable population,” she said.
The Legal Agenda’s 2012 proposal would rescind Article 7 of the Labor Law to make any changes to it apply across the board.
Jazairi said the NCLW considered amending Article 7 outside of its purview, but that all victims would have recourse to action against a harasser through suggested amendments to the Penal Code.
Nammour urged caution against rushing through an imperfect law. “It’s better to advocate for a good law,” he said.
“If a law is passed, it will be even harder to change it later on.”
Karam, on the other hand, argued that getting a sexual harassment law on the books was the priority. “We need some action - any action - at this point to get a win, and then we can formulate [details] later,” she said.
Ghida agreed: “The first and most important step that should be taken is a law and a general respect for women’s suffering. For people’s suffering. For women to be heard.”