HomeOpinionCommentaryThe daily routine of harassment

The daily routine of harassment

Journalist Luna Safwan was called into questioning and forced to sign a statement saying that she would no longer talk about her alleged harrasser in the press or social media. This move is a direct result of structural violence against generations of women in Lebanon, a culture made possible and reinforced by a patriarchal state that doesn’t acknowledge women as equal citizens.

Activists take part in a demonstration against sexual harassment, rape and domestic violence in the Lebanese capital Beirut on December 7, 2019. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

Journalist Luna Safwan joined four other women who sued a man who had allegedly harassed them all. Her case was not as strong as theirs, as she hadn’t been physically assaulted, “only verbally” harassed on social media. But what she did was to speak up for the others, who were obviously more traumatized, more afraid to expose their private lives to a society that regularly blames the victim and would have annihilated them within days.

She took it upon herself to talk about sexual harassment in Lebanon and to challenge the structural violence against women. The man who Safwan and the other four women sued for harassment has never been at a court hearing yet, although the trial started months ago – it is the first lawsuit of its sort in Lebanon. However, he is now suing Luna Safwan for defamation. He went after her personally because it was she who spoke about the case in the media and on her own social media channels, raising awareness on harassment and letting other women know that there is a support network.

I’ve known Luna Safwan for over a decade. She was with me during her first field assignment after she was hired at NOW Lebanon in 2011. It was the beginning of the war in Syria, right when, after months of violent crackdowns on protests, a few army officers began to desert the Syrian Army and organize a rebellion. We went to Mashariah el Qaa to interview some of them.

In the following years, we reported a lot on Syria together. We went to Wadi Khaled, we went to Arsal, we carried rice for refugees and we sat in ambulances and interviewed pregnant women who had fled the bombings in Qara, trying to find ways to soothe them. We interviewed jihadists who played video games and watched anime series. 

We also spent one night in the farmlands of El Qaa, sitting on the porch of a small house owned by a couple of elderly farmers, and witnessed the Syrian army’s shelling of Lebanese territory while the government in Beirut sat comfortably “neutral”.  We traveled together across Lebanon in search of stories. But there is the untold story of such journalistic work, one that every single woman journalist who has been on the field has to tell. Every. Single. One.

And that story is the daily routine of harassment: finding ways of dealing with its many forms and coping by leaning on each other.

The “innocent” pat on the back

We have been hit on at nearly every interview with a male source. We have received unwanted marriage proposals, have been sent messages at midnight about how beautiful our eyes were and how we’d make great wives “for a week”. We’ve been called “whores” for not replying to those midnight messages, and we’ve received countless threats and insults on our social media accounts. The occasional “skank” (prostitute) included.

It doesn’t matter what we wore, it never did and it never does. It doesn’t matter that you’re not wearing a short skirt or a low cleavage, but a pair of dusty loose jeans and a large shirt buttoned up to the chin. It doesn’t matter. They still feel compelled to switch the conversation to “you’re pretty, how about we get together”, “I’ll call you when I’m in Beirut”. 

Someone has to make that slight gesture, that “tender” touch on the back, that “discreet”, flirty tease meant to show us that they are the ones holding the power, together with the information. It doesn’t matter if they are local officials, fighters, rebels, married men. There is always a condescending “habibi” and “my dear” in the conversation to remind us of our humble female condition.

But beyond navigating this daily “small talk”, there are bigger issues. The midnight messages from interviewees who want to “get together” when in Beirut, the “flirt with me or else I won’t tell you anything about the topic you’re writing about”. The “What did you expect?” that we are always met with when complaining about the harassment. We expect to be treated as professionals, and, yet, we are always treated as “girlies”. And putting up with harassment to be able to write a story has become part of a daily routine, our minds always alert to detect the intention and block it quietly as to not upset the interviewee.

This time, it happened to be Luna Safwan. I would have written the same if it were any other of my female coworkers. Luna is not special and neither am I. Not even women journalists are special.

Every single woman residing in Lebanon deals with harassment daily, whether she is Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Sri Lankan, Ghanaian, Ethiopian, Bangladeshi, Filipina, or Western European, Eastern European, North American.

From the little gesture and the light “tender” touch on the back from random interlocutors, to being catcalled by strangers on Hamra Street, to receiving unsolicited messages from men on social media, to being groped and touched by guys who think they are entitled because a woman is on the street, “wearing that thing”. Entitled because she responded to a “hello” or because she smiled.  Or because she is employed in the household, therefore she must also serve as a sexual object, not just as a house help. 

I once headbutted a guy who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. He got upset and called me rude. I was also called rude for calling out older married men out when they sent inappropriate messages on social media.  Luna had to fight off fundamentalists flirting with her because “she had white skin and was beautiful”. They made attempts to convert her and marry her while she was doing her job, interviewing them about the front in Syria.

What did YOU have to put up with daily, as a woman in Lebanon, to be able to do your job?

Structural violence 

It is known that Lebanon as a state and society has put little value on women’s lives and wellbeing over time. They are second-class citizens of their country, their rights are restricted, they can’t pass on citizenship to their own children, they can’t provide an identity for their babies. They need a man to do everything for them from a legal perspective.

They are still regularly killed by husbands, brothers, ex-husbands for perceived transgressions such as seeking a divorce or, worse, seeking a career. 

Domestic violence happens more frequently than one would think. National statistics don’t exist, no one really counts the victims of harassment and sexual assault. Sometimes, feminist NGOs have a hard time counting the murders that domestic violence resulted in. Much of the time, the victims themselves don’t report harassment out of shame that society may think that “they deserved it”.

You don’t realize how often it happens until one of your close friends tells you her husband hit her because she, well, shouted at him. Violence against women is classless, ageless and omnipresent. It doesn’t matter if you wear brands and gold jewelry and go to fancy restaurants or if your day off is spent in Dora. 

It starts with the state law and culminates with everyday harassment and that dangerous cognitive bias that women are emotional, that they exaggerate and should control themselves to not seem too irrational. 

During the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon coded patriarchy into the state law, and over time, it has been developed, evolved into a postmodern agnatic lineage-based social system.

As far as the law of Lebanon is concerned, women are pretty much just vessels carrying babies. They vote in their guardian’s ancestral village, often the way the guardian decides. In Lebanese law, women are mere objects exchanged between agnatic clans. Regardless of whether they hold PhDs and have written books, the law still reduces them to mere wombs. In some communities, women’s access to public space is restricted by family and, often, husbands, while the community allows and many times encourages this sort of oppression. Some sects and regions still rule to take the children away from the mother in case of divorce, regardless of the husband’s behavior towards the wife. She is simply discarded.

But, on top of everything, women are also expected to be modest wombs. We don’t talk about periods, for example. Comedian Shaden Esperanza experienced first-hand how joking about sanitary pads may get you summoned for police questioning and then to court. Girls in conservative villages cannot carry those pads from the pharmacy or grocery shops unless they carefully pack them so that no one would see.

This is a country where during an economic collapse, the items in a daily necessity crisis basket were decided upon by a commission made up of only men, who only put men’s necessities on that list. In 2020, shaving everyday was considered a necessity, and therefore razors were subsidized, while the fact that women bleed regularly once a month was not considered at all, and sanitary pads were left off the list. It took a wave of outrage from women across the country and articles in international publications before the policy was changed. Not that it mattered, there are no more subsidies. 

But the point is that a country governed by a cabinet made up of middle-aged and old men, led by a prime minister who sees “ladies” as somehow debilitated partners that need protection, but not recognized as equals, cannot and will never understand the needs of half of the country’s population.  These old men would hiss at any bill allowing for a women’s quota in legislative and local elections, no matter how many PhD graduates worked on writing it. “Habibi, we have more important problems.”

Lebanon is a country where systematic rape used by combatants during the civil war was not seen as a war crime until 2022, when a group of researchers realized it had never even been mentioned. Because no one before had ever asked. If murders and mass killings were forgiven by all sides, buried deep, erased, and rarely spoken about, the women and girls raped by fighters of all sides had to walk on the street and possibly come face to face with their rapist.

And it is precisely this patriarchal tribal order coded in state law that reinforces the cycle of structural violence against women in society. It leads to ignoring Lebanese women in all things important. It leads to state institutions, as well as communities, ignoring or dismissing complaints of violence against women. It leads to small acts of structural violence against women committed every day, by every sort of man. 

It also leads to an atrophy of the awareness that women are people, not a different species that needs to be restrained, caged, controlled, silenced into submission by every single macho man who needs to validate his masculinity and can’t handle rejection. 

We are all Luna. All of us. 

What happened to Luna Safwan last week is utterly unfair. It is simply further harassment and an attempt at intimidation. The problem with the investigation into this case is that, instead of corroborating evidence from the initial case and rejecting the complaint, the police decided not only to call Luna Safwan in to explain herself, but to ask her to sign a statement that ensures she will no longer speak against her alleged harasser on social media and in the press. They protected the plaintiff’s rights without questioning his account. They pressured the victim into silence.

What Luna has done for women in Lebanon by speaking up and making this case known to the world was to let them know, at the expense of getting threats and being judged – from her appearance to her social media performance, that there can be a support network, that women can speak up and they can and should defend themselves.

Ana Maria Luca is the former managing editor of NOW. She is currently pursuing a PhD in social anthropology at the University of Perugia, Italy. She is on Twitter.

The opinions expressed are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the views of NOW.