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Tuesday Nov 07 2017

In Lebanon, years of campaigns to make harassment 'Not OK'

Over the past decade, a string of anti-harassment campaigns have emerged to fight back against sexual assault in Lebanon, largely considered the most progressive country in the Middle East. Photo: AFP file

BEIRUT: Over the past decade, a string of anti-harassment campaigns have emerged to fight back against sexual assault in Lebanon, largely considered the most progressive country in the Middle East.

Harassment in the small Mediterranean nation may not be as prevalent as other regional countries, but it persists in a deeply patriarchal society.

There were years of initiatives in Lebanon before this month’s #MeToo campaign, sparked by sexual assault claims against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

An early start

Anti-harassment initiatives in Lebanon date back years, with one of the earliest campaigns using cartoon ads on television to encourage women to fight back.

“The Adventures of Salwa” were a series of videos depicting a young woman experiencing, and defending herself, against sexual assault.

One video shows Salwa’s boss offering her a promotion in exchange for a kiss, to which she responds with a stunning blow from her handbag.

Online tracking

Earlier this year, Lebanese activists brought anti-harassment campaigns to the online world, launching to encourage survivors to document and report where assaults have taken place.

The website allows people to specify their gender, that of their attacker, their relationship to him or her, and the nature of the assault.

“It’s not about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment or how common and widespread it is; it’s about how normalised it is,” said’s co-founder Nay el-Rahi.

The central problem lies in “the fact that it is perceived as an integral part of women’s experiences in the public space; part and parcel of their being in the public sphere and should accordingly be dismissed.”

After the allegations against Weinstein came to light, the site’s administrators took to Facebook to criticise the fitful attention to sexual assault.

“We’ve been talking about these stories for years. The issue is that we have to wait for the issue to come out of Hollywood so that the world pays attention,” they wrote.

“So of course #MeToo; rather #UsToo; but #WhyDoWeStillNeedToProveIt?”

'It's not OK'

In August 2016, Lebanon’s ministry of women’s affairs and the American University of Beirut’s KIP Project on Gender and Sexuality launched an anti-harassment campaign under the slogan #mesh_basita—”It’s not OK” in Arabic.

Men and women used the hashtag to share stories of assault across the country.

“Having to carry pepper spray because of too many terrifying taxi experiences #mesh_basita,” one contributor posted.

A draft law on harassment is currently under review by Lebanon’s parliament committee. It would be the first piece of legislation in the country specifically protecting civilians from sexual assault.

‘How many Weinsteins?’

The #MeToo campaign debuted on Twitter in mid-October, with women across the world revealing their own experiences of sexual harassment.

Lebanon was no exception.

“The young man behind me reached out and started to touch my thighs... I didn’t dare say in front all the other passengers that this bastard had assaulted me. Once I got home, I burst into tears,” Lebanese woman Sandy shared on Facebook.

In Lebanon, very few women report cases of harassment due to social stigma and because accusations are rarely taken seriously by the police.

“How many Weinsteins are hiding in Lebanon, behind their cigars, their suits or uniforms?” wrote journalist Ziyad Makhoul last month in Lebanon’s French-language daily, L’Orient-Le Jour.

“Behind their arrogance and, especially, this unbearable sense of impunity, a scourge of scourges? Especially in a country where the state... makes fun of these ‘moods,’ and where NGOs and brave civil society groups are not supported in any way.”