A bill criminalizing sexual harassment in Lebanon was proposed in 2017 but has not been made into law.
In Egypt, the Supreme Council of Universities has ruled that every university in the country must establish a unit dealing with harassment and violence against women. “It’s a great step towards creating safer spaces for women in our educational institutions,” said Enas Hamdy, executive director at HarassMap, an Egyptian organization working on fighting sexual harassment and building a society that guarantees the safety of all people from sexual and gender based violence. (See a related article “The Fight Against Sexual Harassment on Arab Campuses.”)
In 2014, footage of a female student being whistled and jeered at by crowds of men as she walked across campus at Cairo University went viral on social media. HarassMap now has teams of volunteers in education institutions across the country as part of its Safe Schools and Universities program, which targets harassment from students and teachers. “Women and girls are becoming more aware about their right to speak about and report what they experience,” Hamdy said.
The same year, the Egyptian government amended its Penal Code to include penalties against sexual harassment. Other countries, including Tunisia and Morocco, have since taken similar steps. Morocco’s 2018 law on violence against women is one of the few that identifies cyber harassment as a crime. In Jordan, which has seen a rapid rise in online crimes, particularly towards women, a level of legal protection is provided by the controversial Cyber Crimes Act.
But women’s rights advocates say those laws often fall short of what’s needed to protect women. The Sisterhood Is Global Institute, a Jordanian women’s rights organization, said not enough women are aware of the new law and thus are still not reporting harassment. In addition, some weak provisions of the law need to be strengthened. The organization has outlined the diversity of forms that sexual harassment crimes can take: cyber stalking, revenge pornography, morphing (editing pictures to embarrass the victim) and email spoofing to deceive the recipient about the identity of the sender.
While online technology has been a liberating force in some ways, it can be a “double-edged sword,” said Rothna Begum of Human Rights Watch. “Domestic violence can also be done online, when families scrutinize a woman’s behavior more closely by monitoring their phone and apps.”
A 2016 BBC investigation into shame, honor and blackmail in the digital sphere showed how online technology has exacerbated some of the existing problems women face in the Middle East and North Africa region. It tells the story of 18-year-old Ghadeer in Egypt, who sent a video of herself dancing at home in a strappy dress to her boyfriend. When the relationship ended, he posted it on YouTube. Ghadeer refused to be intimidated and posted the video on her own Facebook page, stating that she had no reason to be ashamed. (She was at home with friends, he wasn’t there at the time.)
But last month saw a tragic reminder of the unforeseen risks women can face online when a young Palestinian woman became the victim of a suspected “honor” killing in the occupied West Bank. Twenty-one-year-old Israa Ghrayeb was allegedly tortured and beaten to death by her brother after posting a video of herself on an outing with her fiancé ahead of the wedding.
“We need to deal with the root issue of discrimination against women,” Begum said. She added: “For young women in particular, it’s a scary world. They are now exposed in a way where, if they are sharing pictures, this can be used against them and they may not realize what’s coming.”