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Arab Women Fight Back Against Online Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is scary for victims on the street, but it can be just as intimidating online. Now women’s rights campaigners, nongovernmental organizations, and universities are fighting harassment in the same digital space to protect users against a growing number of threats online.

For Nadyn Jouny, online harassment began in 2014 with anonymous messages. “He told me he loved me and wanted to sleep with me,” she recalls. Since then the same individual has messaged her daily, or weekly, for five years. “He sends me Ramadan greetings and birthday wishes one day, then tells me his physical desires the next. He knows I am married and a mother but says he still wants to have sex with me,” the 29-year-old woman said.

As a prominent women’s rights campaigner in Beirut, Jouny, who works with the gender equality organization Abaad, is regularly the target of online harassment. She receives two to three messages a day, or up to 20 if she posts on Facebook. Sometimes she gets tired of waking up to explicit photos of men’s private parts and messages threatening rape. “Then I tell them how sick and ridiculous and abusive they are.”

Having a clear policy on sexual harassment and the consequences “creates a safer environment all-round. Perhaps a person will think twice before committing misconduct of this kind if there’s a strict policy in place.”

Mitra Tauk  A coordinator of anti-harassment efforts at the American University of Beirut

Jouny calls out some harassers by re-posting their messages publicly. However not all women feel safe sharing their experiences in Lebanon, where they can be shamed into silence by a society that, Jouny says, finds ways to justify harassment. “Sometimes girls send me screen shots about a message they receive and ask me to post it anonymously on their behalf because they want to warn other women.”

A Problem Shared

Other countries in the region have seen a similar surge in online harassment but the scarcity of data makes it difficult to counter attack. “It’s a reality that really haunts women, usually as a way of excluding them from a space and intimidating them into staying away,” says Rothna Begum, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch for the Middle East and North Africa region.

A woman could be targeted as a result of politically motivated attempts to discredit female leaders, to undermine women’s rights campaigners, or because a vengeful former partner wants to blackmail the victim into marriage or threaten her with “revenge porn.” Women are especially susceptible in the Middle East and North Africa region, where they are often seen as vessels of family honor, Begum said.

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Research conducted by the Arab Centre for the Development of Social Media found that one-third of young Palestinian women experience online sexual harassment. In Morocco, a rise in online harassment was highlighted by a government survey this year. But if a culture of silence surrounding gender-based violence prevented many victims from speaking out in the pre-digital era, some women are now using their own online presence to fight back.

“Once a woman starts being harassed she will go on her social media page and expose the perpetrator so that other women can protect themselves and block that account,” said Alia Awada, who works with Abaad. “The most powerful thing when you report is the solidarity online. This will create an online safe space and encourage other women to speak about these incidents.”

Anti-harassment hashtags such as #NotYourHabibti in Palestine, #AnaKaman (#MeToo) and #Ismaani (#HearMeToo), have accelerated this trend, inspiring a growing number of women to share their experiences.

“Global initiatives, including #MeToo, #TimesUp and many others, are seeking to make perpetrators pay with tarnished reputations and jail time for what they have done,” said Janneke van der Graaf-Kukler, regional director for the Arab states at UN Women. “This is an opportunity to end the culture of silence and put the survivors at the center of the response.”

Nadyn Jouny, a prominent voice for women's rights in Lebanon. Female activists are often a target for online harassment and she frequently receives up to 20 messages of a sexual nature after posting online. (Photo: Nadyn Jouny)
Nadyn Jouny, a prominent voice for women’s rights in Lebanon. Female activists are often a target for online harassment and she frequently receives up to 20 messages of a sexual nature after posting online. (Photo: Nadyn Jouny)

Student and University Support

In 2017, the American University of Beirut launched #MeshBasita (“It’s not OK”), a six-week social media campaign to challenge sexual harassment. Videos linked to the project went viral as women and men embraced the opportunity to voice support online.

The university recently expanded its policy toward cyber harassment. “We felt that it was something that needed to be specifically addressed,” said Mitra Tauk, a coordinator at the Equity and Title IX Office, which oversees nondiscrimination and anti-harassment initiatives. Social media has become a primary means of communication for young people, she said, so it’s increasingly important that they know how to protect themselves online.

Having a clear policy defining sexual harassment and the consequences for the perpetrators is crucial. “It creates a safer environment all-round,” said Tauk. “Perhaps a person will think twice before committing misconduct of this kind if there’s a strict policy in place. It also makes it easier to spot misconduct and moves it away from the gray zone where people are unsure whether that post on Facebook or WhatsApp message is OK or not.”

Rasha al Rayess, a student at the Lebanese American University, said that institution’s strict code of conduct helps to establish a safe environment for students. “What needs to change,” she said, “are the laws and policies beyond our private universities. Unfortunately, although a lot of campaigns and initiatives have been implemented in Lebanon, the country’s government still doesn’t tackle this matter seriously.”

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.”)

“We need to deal with the root issue of discrimination against women. For young women in particular, it’s a scary world.”

Rothna Begum  
A women’s rights researcher with Human Rights Watch

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.

Legal Matters

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.”


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