BEIRUT: If a student from the American University of Beirut is sexually harassed or assaulted, can U.S. sex-discrimination law protect them? That deceptively simple question took center stage at a recent Lebanese-American student dialogue. Discussion centered on the application of Title IX, a U.S. federal statute that was created to prohibit sexual discrimination in education programs that receive federal financial assistance.
As a recipient of American funding, AUB has a Title IX office that manages the university’s response to discrimination, including gender-based harassment.
“AUB is an American institution and Title IX is an office that goes by the American Constitution. We wanted to see how the American legal framework is being applied here in comparison to the U.S. and how the student experience differs,” said May Ghanem, one of the main organizers of the event and a research assistant at the KIP Project on Gender and Sexuality.
The student-organized discussion, titled “Sexual Harassment Beyond #MeToo,” brought together students from AUB and Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts Friday over a live online video-linked discussion that was put on a projector for the respective audiences.
“What women are trying to do across activist groups in Lebanon is trying to raise awareness that something has to be done. An extremely important part of the puzzle is having students and youth mobilize around these issues,” said Charlotte Karam, one of the main organizers of the event and director of the KIP Project.
During the event, questions were raised as to whether AUB’s Title IX office was doing its due diligence in preventing sexual harassment on campus and supporting victims.
AUB panelists, who consisted mainly of members of the university’s Feminist Club, said the office could be doing more to assist with sexual harassment cases.
“From past cases we’ve seen, the response system was very slow. ... All the cases of sexual harassment that happened on campus have been talked about on social media ... but no harassers have actually been caught,” one panelist said.
Another panelist from AUB emphasized the lack of legal support for victims. “I think they could follow up more on cases, especially those that involve harassers who are not part of AUB, and offer more support through legal prosecution if the victim decides to prosecute,” the panelist said.
“I believe it’s important that since AUB is an institution that is protected under international law, that it takes advantage of the power it has, that Lebanese institutions or other citizens may not have,” another panelist added.
But AUB’s Title IX coordinator, who was in the audience, pushed back. Mitra Tauk insisted the office was doing all it could to address sexual harassment and assault cases within AUB’s jurisdiction.
Because Title IX is a U.S. legal framework, it cannot be applied outside of AUB. This means that if a harasser is not an AUB student or faculty member, Title IX is not applicable to them.
“When the person or the harasser is not part of the AUB community, you have to understand that AUB has no jurisdiction over that person. ... What we’ve done is coordinated protection to accompany the victim to the police station to report the case,” Tauk told the audience.
“But we cannot offer help beyond this; we cannot hire lawyers to follow up on the case. ... AUB cannot afford to hire lawyers ... but we offer support, we follow up and we try to prevent occurrences of such cases,” Tauk added.
Lebanon does not currently have national legislation confronting sexual harassment. Cabinet has approved a draft law criminalizing sexual harassment, but it has yet to be passed by Parliament.
“Title IX is great for students, but we can’t do anything if there is no law in Lebanon on sexual harassment,” Ghanem said.
But legal measures alone cannot fix everything without societal change first, participants agreed.
“We see that the U.S. has sexual harassment laws, but the perception of sexual harassment is still the same. So while it’s important to have a sexual harassment law in Lebanon, we also have to address societal perception of sexual harassment in the country,” Ghanem said.
“Even in universities or countries that are considered much more advanced than Lebanon, you still face the same issues,” she said.
Friday’s event was part of the New York-Beirut Briefings series, which brings together faculty, students and experts in Beirut, the Middle East and the U.S. to discuss important issues. It was the first time students organized and led a briefing.
In addition to talking about Title IX, the discussion hit upon several topics of importance to women: campus safety, administration, international human rights principles, national institutional frameworks and student activism.
Students from both universities spoke on each topic.
Among the similarities found during the discussion, both sides in the U.S. and Lebanon said there was a lack of data on sexual harassment and assault cases.
“We need better data about sexual assault. ... We don’t have any data prevalence of less severe but still problematic incidents such as sexual harassment. ... And we need better training and more training of officers,” a Holyoke panelist said.
Similar sentiments were shared in Lebanon. “Harassment is sadly not documented, partly because of taboos and the lack of clarity of sexual harassment in Lebanon for the Lebanese people and for the [security] forces,” AUB panelist Cecile Khoury said.