In December 2013, I was reporting on the refugee influx in Aarsal, on the borders between Lebanon and Syria. A local NGO was going to deliver aid and I decided to accompany them to Wadi Hmayed, which is located in a valley on the outskirts of Aarsal.
I found myself in a tent, talking to a woman in her late twenties as aid was being distributed throughout the camp. I was covering the lack of medical aid and services in these “unofficial” camps on the border. The woman was squeezing her stomach while holding her baby tight, in an attempt to hide her pain. I put my camera aside and asked if we could go in and talk.
She told me her story: how she came from Syria to the Bekaa valley. During moments of silence, it was clear that she looked carefully around the tent to make sure that no one was listening. Soon, I picked up that something was off. I asked her if she is feeling okay physically, and she started to talk about her pelvic pain, her period, how she had been bleeding for over 10 days, and how the lack of female nurses prevented her from trying to seek help.
I asked her to describe the chronological order of events and how this started. She explained that her periods are not a pleasant time for her to begin with, and that she thinks they are worse than what other women experience.
Then, without quite knowing what she was describing, she told me how her husband raped her on the second day of her period, only few months after she had given birth to the baby she was holding in her arms. But to her, marital rape did not exist. Having sexual intercourse with her husband was a must, even if she did not want to. What her husband did to her caused more bleeding. The female doctor who saw her a few days later confirmed it.
I never wrote or reported on this story. I wrote about period poverty and the inaccessible medical services for women refugees in Aarsal. But that story I kept to myself. I had two reasons. One is that the woman did not understand what marital rape was, and there was a psychological need to have this explained to her by a professional, and that was not my place. And the second reason was that her safety was at stake because of her social situation, I could cause her both physical and psychological harm.
So I stayed silent, trying to help by referring her to medical professionals.
Fast forward 9 years
I’m a 31-year-old journalist and I’m suing a man who sexually harassed me online. I’m also trying to cover a story about mismanagement and money embezzlement in a local non-governmental organization in Lebanon.
During my research, a claim kept resurfacing: a newly formed political party was allegedly the safe haven for a man who sexually harassed his colleagues. After I announced that me and 6 other women are suing a man for harassment in Lebanon, one woman, a former member of the political party, contacted me and conveyed details of how other women were silenced, how the harasser was only suspended for a few months. For months, she repeatedly lamented the lack of action – upset that no one was doing anything about it.
Many times, I offered to report on these claims, and I assured her it would be anonymous. But she was not the one who was harassed, and I needed to talk to the women who had experienced harassment from the accused.
I did not get any leads on survivors until my work on the mismanagement and money embezzlement grew bigger. The same woman contacted me yet again with the claims, pressuring me to report on the harassment story, basing it on her hearsay. I always insisted that I needed testimonies.
Not one of the harassed women approached me. I did my research, I asked around, certain that the man in question is in fact a harasser because the political party did in fact suspend him for 6 months. Furthermore, senior members resigned because they did not think this suspension was enough. Yet, no matter how certain you are as a journalist, just as lawyers look for evidence, we look for testimonies, on the record, whether anonymous or not. Without them, we are left with hearsay.
The turning point came when one woman wrote to me in a text message on Instagram: “I know what you are talking about and who you are talking about. I experienced something similar with this man.” But she was not ready to talk on the record about it, she did not think the society would agree that what she had been through was harassment.
“For people to believe that a woman was harassed, rape has to be involved, otherwise our society will not identify it as harassment,” she told me.
I wanted to tell her the story of the woman who was raped by her husband, and how even rape is sometimes dismissed in our societies, but instead, I found myself arguing online with people accusing me of siding with that harasser while believing that I had testimonies which I intentionally did not share.
Sometimes even the strongest of women are not ready to come forward. I am being sued by my harasser because I disclosed it to the public and wrote about it as a journalist. But I cannot convince other women to talk to me about their harassment experiences when they’re afraid of the backlash.
Sometimes, staying silent in order to protect survivors is necessary.
Sometimes, you have to go on and take it step by step. You can have a breakdown once in a while and friends will be there for you. But you can never give up.
Luna Safwan is an independent journalist based in Beirut. She is the host of the ‘Beyond politics’ weekly podcast. She reports on current affairs with a special focus on freedoms, human rights, Syria, migrant workers, and marginalized communities. She tweets @LunaSafwan.
The opinions expressed are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the views of NOW.