Lebanon News

Sexual abuse victims speak out

BEIRUT: It’s after 9 o’clock in the evening, and Mira is considering sharing a secret she’s kept hidden for years. The young student wants to speak up, but the stakes couldn’t be higher: She’s worried she’ll be judged by people at her university, her friends, even – or especially – her family. She picks up her phone.

Only an hour or two earlier, Mira – not her real name – came across a video on Twitter called “Min el-Felten,” which was published across social media platforms by advocacy group ABAAD.

It forms a central part of a campaign that the group hopes will change the dialogue around sexual violence in Lebanon.

In the video, a crowd gathers around a young woman, played by an actor in a T-shirt and thigh-length skirt, in severe distress, having been raped.

Some in the crowd offer assistance. Others are less charitable.

“She could be your sister,” one person says. “My sister would never dress like that,” the response comes.

One older woman counsels the victim to be more subdued, stroking her hair: “You’re embarrassing yourself more, don’t let anyone know.”

According to Saja Michael, gender and diversity technical adviser at ABAAD, this campaign follows the success of the organization’s #Undress522 campaign, which contributed last year to lawmakers repealing an article in the penal code that allowed rapists to avoid prosecution if they married their victims.

“After the abolition of 522 we realized that there is a bigger political context ... especially related to sexual violence,” Michael says.

“We wanted to create something more geared towards advocacy: changing public opinion as well as advocacy in terms of policy change.”

The video campaign was supported by billboards rolled out across the country, graffiti telling victims’ stories and a sit-in at Sunday’s Beirut Marathon where volunteers displayed signs saying, “Today, I will not run, I will stand and face my rapist.”

The campaign certainly got people talking: By Monday evening, a week after it was posted, it had 1.7 million views and had been shared more than 10,000 times. Of over 3,600 comments on the video, many blamed the victim. One said that reactions like those shown would only occur in certain communities.

ABAAD had anticipated this, so they filmed in various areas across sectarian boundaries.

As for the overwhelmingly negative comments in the video, Michael says, “It’s true that not all Lebanese men think that way but ... these were the majority of the [responses]. Not just by men, but also by women.”

For Mira, while the fear of such reactions had been one of the primary reasons for keeping her silence, it was also one of two things that finally drove her to speak up.

The other was a moment in the video when someone implies that the victim may have been in a consensual relationship with her abuser.

The suggestion touched a nerve deep inside Mira. “Even if it was someone she loves and trusts, this is wrong,” she says – and she speaks from experience.

Shortly before the ABAAD campaign, she had left an abusive relationship with a man who would physically and sexually abuse her at his house. The violence culminated at a party last year when her then-boyfriend forced her to perform fellatio on him. “He pushed my head, he grabbed my hair. My neck almost broke because of how much he used force in it,” she recalls.

Mira says she had loved the man for years before their relationship.

“I finally had the relationship I wanted, the one I wished for so many years before.”

She knew his actions were wrong but couldn’t bring herself to leave him. “He justified this as love and because I loved him and didn’t want to lose him, I wanted to believe what he said,” she says.

It was not the first time Mira had been a victim of sexual abuse. She said that at the age of 8, the doorman in her family’s building would touch her chest, but she never told her parents as she felt they would blame her for the abuse. Later, when she was 14, she had been encouraged to undertake sex acts with a boyfriend. “All the things that happened weren’t really what I wanted,” she says.

Her mother realized something was wrong and took her to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed Mira with severe anxiety and depression.

Nevertheless, she never opened up about the sexual assault, as she was worried her therapist would tell her mother, who would blame her.

“I went to four therapists and none of them could help because I started talking nonsense: normal life problems, not the ones that were affecting me,” she remembers.

Mira’s most recent abusive relationship made her existing mental health problems even worse.

“It made me hate my body to an extreme. I started hating myself,” she says. “When you’re silent about it, it eats you alive.”

Not reporting sexual assault is not a phenomenon specific to Lebanon, says Nour Nasr, director of research at the Arab Foundation for Freedom and Equality.

“Victims of assault rarely report because of the culture of shame, [as a result of] a very patriarchal culture that basically is going to put the victim at more of a risk, rather than less of a risk,” she explains.

According to Nasr, official statistics for such assaults in Lebanon do not exist: “We do not have any official governmental reporting mechanism. When people go to the [Internal Security Forces] to report a certain assault it’s often brushed off.”

Nevertheless, a 2017 report produced for the U.N. program “Men and Women for Gender Equality” found that in Lebanon, 31 percent of women reported having experienced violence with an intimate partner, while 24 percent of men reported perpetrating such acts.

When Mira finally shared her story on Twitter, the impact was almost instantaneous. The very next day her ex-boyfriend called her to accuse her of lying. This, however, was insignificant compared to the support she received. “People I never spoke to that were just acquaintances texted me and told me, ‘We’re there for you,’ and, ‘Stay strong, you inspired us.’ So many girls talked to me, they shared their experiences,” she says.

Two days after she shared the post, Mira says her ex-boyfriend apologized and asked for her forgiveness.

While supportive and shocked at the abuse Mira had suffered, her mother begged her to delete the story in case it impacted the family, which Mira grudgingly did. She does not regret uploading the story, however.

“It felt so emotionally exhausting but at the same time, I felt proud of myself. I was so happy to see all the girls tell me their stories and know that it’s OK to talk, that there are people there for them.

“That was my goal. For girls just to speak and for them to feel more comfortable about it, not to blame themselves,” she says. “It was probably the best decision I’ve ever made because it helped others, it helped me and it made me feel stronger.” – Additional reporting by Emily Lewis

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 13, 2018, on page 3.

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