BEIRUT: The last month of Lebanon’s mass uprisings has emboldened women in the country to reclaim their voices. Nothing in Lebanese Labor Law or the Penal Code references sexual harassment, leaving women no legal framework through which to address a harassment 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.
Around 1,000 people gathered Saturday afternoon, marching from Hamra to Riad al-Solh Square to raise awareness of and protest against sexual harassment.
“It’s a duty, we’ve had enough of being silenced and feeling ashamed,” Joumana Haddad, a political activist, told The Daily Star.
Abir Zibane, a lawyer, moved to Lebanon from Dubai two years ago. She said that the political situation until the recent protests was depressing. “I have never felt Lebanese until these protests,” she said.
Another protester said she attended the march following the recent news involving Beirut man Marwan Habib.
Habib has been accused of harassing and sexually assaulting dozens of women in Beirut over a period of more than four years.
Many have shared testimonies implicating Habib since Independence Day on Nov. 22, when he participated in a civilian parade in Downtown Beirut.
Saturday’s march was organized after dozens of women publicly came forward and shared testimonies against Habib. Harasstracker has also collected many of the women’s testimonials, some of which date back as far as 2015.
On Dec. 3, lawyer Kareem Majbour filed a lawsuit against Habib for the “verbal and physical harassment of numerous women.”
“We have a solid case against him. We need to put an end to his acts,” Majbour tweeted along with a copy of the lawsuit.
“I feel like this could be the beginning of a MeToo movement in Lebanon. This is a conversation [that] when started cannot be silenced or put to one side,” Rand Hammoud, a main organizer of the march, told The Daily Star.
Hammoud said the organizers chose Bliss Street as the starting point because that was where Habib reportedly targeted many of his victims. Habib has not been arrested or asked to appear for questioning.
In 2012, NGO The Legal Agenda drafted a comprehensive proposal to reform both the Labor Law and the Penal Code, but it failed to be 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.
Speaking out against harassment is still taboo in Lebanon, often leading to victim-blaming and questions including why women didn’t go to the police or what they were wearing to provoke the harassment or assault.
Because of the difficulties in bringing harassers to justice, the unity with which women came out against Habib stunned many. Harasstracker co-founder Nay El Rahi said the “degree of solidarity” emerging in the Habib case was both “tremendous” and “surprising.”
While the road was paved by the work of women’s rights activists and feminist organizations before the nationwide protests, Hammoud said that the solidarity that has emerged during the protests has helped women speak out against sexual harassment.
“During the revolution there has been a kind of reclaiming of space. We’ve seen women leading discussions and more space for women to make their voices loud and make their stories heard,” Hammoud said.
The sentiment is shared by Alia Awada, an advocacy and media adviser at rights NGO Abaad.
“I believe the silence has been broken ... you see it everywhere, women being more outspoken. Seeing more women talk - this encourages other women, you feel the need to speak,” Awada said.
During the march, protesters called for women to be allowed to pass down Lebanese citizenship.
Lebanese women are unable to pass their citizenship to their children, who can only take on the citizenship of their father.