BEIRUT: Although a draft law criminalizing sexual harassment received “wide support” from Parliament, the opening day of the Knowledge Is Power project’s two-day conference on the issue Friday showed that significant steps are still needed to attain gender equality in Lebanon. During the first session on policy and sexual harassment, MP Ghassan Moukheiber detailed the draft law he submitted that would further women’s rights in Lebanon. The draft was submitted three years ago, but parliamentary deadlock prevented discussion on its approval.
With recent momentum in Parliament, Moukheiber said his proposal was among a group of possible bills considered for urgent discussion. Expressing surprise that such an initiative was being taken seriously, the MP also repeatedly commented on often openly sarcastic attitudes toward such measures.
Currently, Lebanon’s penal code neither defines sexual harassment nor criminalizes such offenses.
To raise awareness and change societal understanding of sexual harassment, civil society and grass-roots projects have been fighting battles that authorities have largely overlooked. In March 2016, one such project, called HarassTracker, created a website allowing users to log incidents of sexual harassment on a virtual map. A year later, the founders will present their findings at the KIP conference Saturday.
“Having a platform available for people to report cases of [sexual harassment] is important. Then with HarassTracker we have this pool of data,” Nay al-Rahi, co-founder of HarassTracker, told The Daily Star. “While the [Internal Security Forces] say that they don’t have data and that they need support, HarassTracker can now say that we have a pool of anonymous data. With this information, we can change the response from victim-blaming to an actual investigation.”
The data from HarassTracker indicates that from catcalling to public masturbation or more violent offenses, sexual harassment is common in Lebanon.
Reports show an apparent regularity of offenses and indicate that authorities have intimidated victims and questioned the veracity of their testimony rather than taking action against perpetrators.
Discussion at the conference expanded beyond the scope of sexual harassment to discuss the overall situation for women in Lebanon.
“The dignity of women [in Lebanon] should [prioritized], and [discrimination] and sexual harassment shouldn’t only be framed as physical violence on behalf of men,” Manar Zaiter, former director of the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering, said while speaking on the panel.
She added that a narrow view of what constitutes women’s issues in Lebanon slowed progress in the fight for gender equality. She noted that a draft law could not be written without consideration of power structures that control the ways men and women are forced to navigate their lives, but said that as a lawyer, she would keep fighting for progress.
“How can we translate social concepts into legal concepts?” she asked. “We need a full [repeal] of the penal code rather than the amendment of a few articles, and we need a new concept of protection.”
She also said “the problem is not only that there is no law. There is also an issue with the romanticizing of the general psyche [that promotes] violence against women.”
While she noted that such a draft law was a good effort, it was still “unimpressive” as equality is still years off.