By Rym Tina Ghazal
January 1, 2019
Help! I’ve been raped!” Manal Issa uttered
those words as she stumbled down a Beirut street, desperately appealing to
people around her. According to a news report on CNN’s website, a crowd
gathered, with some people telling her to calm down and even to just be quiet.
One person even chastised her for wearing a miniskirt, while yet another
accused her of being a drug addict, according to the report. Not a single
person called the police.
Fortunately, Issa had not really been raped
– her public appeal was an experiment by the Lebanese women’s rights group
ABAAD to highlight the public’s lack of awareness when it comes to rape and
The rights group had conducted a weeks-long
campaign, #ShameOnWho, addressing social stigma and how victims are often
accused of being “loose” and responsible for sexual assaults. “We’re trying to
encourage women who are survivors of rape to speak up, to get out of the cycle
and culture of victim-blaming,” the group’s founder, Ghida Anani, told CNN.
While this incident was staged, I have seen
the real thing before. When I was a reporter based in Beirut more than 10 years
ago, I saw a woman running down one of the city’s busier streets in the middle
of the night, yelling that she had been robbed and sexually assaulted.
There was a group of people sitting
outdoors at a restaurant, but they did not have much of a reaction, with some
people shaking their heads and looking away. Two women shouted at the woman,
telling her to be quiet because there were children in the area. However, I was
with a group of journalists and we ran to the woman and tried to help. A
colleague was instantly on his mobile phone telling police that there was a
woman in distress, but he was struggling to persuade them to come to the scene.
“Yes, she is walking and standing up, but
she needs help. She needs an ambulance and to file a report, right?” he said.
In the end, the police didn’t come. When we offered to take the woman to the
police station, she refused and asked us to take her home and not to report the
assault. Left with little option, we did as she asked, and the attack
ultimately went unaddressed.
In that context, the United Nations Entity
for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) statistics for Arab
and North African countries come as no surprise, showing that more than six of
10 female survivors of violence remain silent and do not ask for support or
protection. The agency also found that one in three women has experienced
physical or sexual violence at least once in her life – mostly perpetrated by
Last summer, the Thomson Reuters Foundation
released a poll concluding that India was the most dangerous country in the
world for women because of sexual violence, human trafficking for domestic
work, forced labour, forced marriage and sexual slavery and other factors.
In the “sexual violence” category – which
included rape as a weapon of war, domestic rape, rape by a stranger, the lack
of access to justice in rape cases and sexual harassment and coercion to have
sex as a form of corruption – India ranked first, followed by the Democratic
Republic of Congo and Syria. Egypt also ranked high on the list at No 10.
Fortunately, there has been progress. One
of the issues in the Arab world is that rapists who marry their victims are
often shown leniency or even acquitted. This is changing in some countries,
such as Morocco, where Article 475 of the penal code, which previously allowed
rapists to avoid prosecution if they married their victims, was repealed in
2014 after a victim’s suicide after she was forced to marry her rapist. Lebanon
and Jordan similarly reformed their legal codes in 2017.
Other crimes against women have also begun
to spur reforms. For example, the Jordanian government reported 36 “justified”
honour killings in 2017, which led to an amendment of the penal code that had
specified less severe penalties for crimes committed in “fits of fury” –
typically when male family members killed their sisters or daughters because
they had brought “dishonour” upon the family.
Tunisia’s legislative reform implemented
last year is the most progressive in the region, mandating compensation and
follow-up support for survivors, while recognizing that men and boys can also
be victims of rape.
In some countries such as the United Arab
Emirates, rapists can face the death penalty, but sex outside marriage or Zina
is also a serious crime, and women who have reported sexual assaults have then
been arrested themselves.
It appears to have been more clear-cut in
the past. An often-repeated story relates how a woman living in the time of the
Prophet Muhammad was raped when she left her house to pray. When she reported
the assault, people caught the perpetrator and brought him to Prophet Muhammad,
who condemned him to death. The woman was not shamed or held accountable for
being a victim.
In the present day, we know that some
victims may know their attackers, who may even be family members. In those
cases, social pressure not to report the crime is reinforced by warped family
influence to protect the rapist and “family name.” But a failure to report the
crime, especially when linked to shaming and punishing the victim, is never the
right answer and will only lead to continued sexual assaults.
This article was provided to Asia Times by Syndication Bureau, which