by Nay El-Rahi from Lebanon
(Translated from the original Arabic)
About two weeks ago Lebanese NGO KAFA launched a #MeToo campaign in Lebanon to encourage young women to share their stories of sexual harassment. The campaign already exists in many countries around the world and has elicited a wide response in Lebanon, with scores of young women reporting their experiences of sexual harassment for the first time. The #MeToo campaign, directed towards shaping active public opinion, has succeeded in pressuring for passage of a law—put forth by the Minister for Women’s Affairs, Jean Ogasapian—criminalizing sexual harassment. At the same time, the campaign is revealing a lack of awareness of how to deal with sexual harassment and a misunderstanding of the differences between sexual harassment and sexual assault.
There are those among us who live in fear that spreads from head to toe, through our very arteries. There are those among us whose exterior is eroded by the abundant suspicions within us. There are those among us whose anger burns in our heart, silences our tongue, and paralyzes our movement. There are those among us who loathe ourselves and our vulnerability and blame ourselves. This blame should belong to others.
Our reactions to sexual harassment and the daily violations of our bodies, our security, and our personal spaces differ; feelings of guilt are a common yet dangerous result of what afflicts us daily in the streets, on public transportation, in the workplace and sometimes even in our homes.
When we speak up about sexual harassment and we’re silenced; when we’re asked whether what drives us to work on harassment is ‘something that happened to you’, an accident, an isolated incident; we try to explain the universality of this “plague,” its widespread nature that’s not limited to time nor place. We say that we have encountered this in the past and continue to encounter it every day. We say that we and our sisters and friends and people unknown to us have experienced harassment and experience it every day—in the school, the university, the street, and the workplace. We say that these “incidents” are not exceptions. We say that these incidents are a continuous series of daily, untold transgressions. The harasser is neither “sick” nor a “social outcast.” He is the pedestrian whom we encounter on the sidewalk daily, the police officer, the polite and smiling cab driver, the friendly neighbor, the cousin eager to spend time with his female relative to entertain them. He is the professor, the boss, or the colleague. He is any man who has authority in any sphere and uses it to exploit and pursue women.
We say that what we “encounter” is our daily life—a living translation of male culture that allows and encourages the objectification of women, does not condemn violence against them, and does not take into account aggressions that appear “trivial” against women’s bodies and spaces. Against their freedom to move in public without fear and without looking behind them every thirty seconds. We say that the harasser is not sick. He is an individual who holds power and who thinks imposing himself on women is his right – or at least conduct for which he will not be punished. On the contrary, our indulgent, conducive environment encourages and generally extols him as a paragon of power and virility.
For those of us on the receiving end of this virility—the victims, the survivors, the harassed— this conducive environment teaches us that we must remain silent, blame ourselves, and feel guilty. These constant and inescapable feelings of insecurity go hand in hand with being a woman.
Speaking about harassment is considered shameful and exposing it exposes us to disgrace and the notion that we must have somehow deserved it. Being out by ourselves at a late hour, a short skirt, a playful personality, drinking too much alcohol. The fault must be ours, not the harasser’s and not the male culture that shelters, embraces, and encourages him. And not the values that allow the harasser to ignore that what he is doing is harassment: offensive, frightening, and unwanted harassment. He maybe knows this is harassment, but his knowledge still does not deter him. The solution must be for us to not return to “that part of town”. Or make restrictive changes in our lifestyle. Or use of an imaginary man to intimidate the harasser because a woman herself is not enough to prevent him from harassing her. Whether after midnight or in broad daylight: she must count on a man to deter another man.
Thus, the invitation to share our daily stories of sexual harassment under the hashtag #MeToo, that seeks to open the door on the deep secretsburied in the hearts of their keepers. These women should not have had to bear these secrets for a day, but they have carried these burdens by force, unjustly, and falsely. Uncovering these secrets have removed the veil of shame from women and placed it on the perpetrators.
These stories only come to assert the act of participation as an act of resistance against an unspoken fault, crime, and violation. These stories invite us, women to eliminate the guilt that eats away at our souls over things like the hour we go out, the clothes we wear, the beverages we sip, and, indeed, our very existence.
First, these stories seek to criminalize sexual harassment in the mind. This is the essence of confronting the abuse of power and fighting the exclusion of the most vulnerable. Secondly, they aim to put pressure to debate and ratify the draft law submitted by the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, aimed at penalizing sexual harassment and approved by the Cabinet in March 2017.
This is our struggle for a social justice that resembles us, a social justice that is not selective, in which the external is not excluded from the mainstream, and in which those who lack privileges emerge with a little dignity and are not marginalised.
This fight is for those who have not yet given up the possibility of a dignified life in a country that is incapable of guaranteeing the most basic conditions of life. Our stories are our weapons in this struggle, and through these stories we speak of the oppression we witness every day, instead of gazing at it while it gnaws away at us bit by bit.
Our stories speak of our daily, accumulated struggles. Today is not the time for silence; for dismissing the violations committed against our bodies. It is not the time for dictates on women’s bodies or for speaking in their name. You, the victim of harassment, and you alone have the right to document what you have encountered and to evaluate your reaction to it. It is enough to understand that the fault is not yours, despite the intensity of the pressure on you to believe that. It is enough to realize the power of the stories that we carry inside us and that dispel our fear. We have transformed the secrets that threatened us into a weapon that frees us and directs the blame at the source of the problem.