NAYA| Sexual Harassment at the workplace: 'Legal reforms are indispensable in the MENA'

Source: Annahar
Christy-Belle Geha
Depiction of sexual harassment by physical touching. (AP Photo)
Depiction of sexual harassment by physical touching. (AP Photo)
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BEIRUT: While millions of women worldwide are impacted by gender-based violence, which often forces the harassed women to continue working at intimidating workplace, the issue remains largely unsolved and underreported due to multiple social, economic, and professional threats.
“The current legal framework in Lebanon doesn’t protect from violence, and the law doesn’t clearly define sexual harassment,” said Youmna Makhlouf, appeal lawyer and member of the Legal Agenda, during the “Anti-Sexual Harassment Protections in Workplaces Across the ARAB MENA” webinar hosted by the Center for Inclusive Business and Leadership (CIBL) for Women. The webinar gathered insights and opinions gathered from Lebanon, Tunisia, and Egypt. 

The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Comission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature,” and that, in a professional space, the harasser can be “the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.”

Makhlouf cited the difficulty to prove the occurrence of a sexual harassment especially in a closed space where there are no witnesses, the absence of the concept of ensuring a healthy work environment and gender equality, and the vagueness of the concept of ‘“sexual harassment” in bills in Lebanon.

Adding to these challenges, Bochra Bel Haj Hmida from Tunisia, attorney at the Court of Cassation specializing in social and family law, women, children and human rights, mentioned the harassment survivors’ fear of losing their jobs due to familial pressure, and the non-cooperation between female co-workers.

“What’s surprising in Tunisia is that women are now able to disclose domestic violence cases, but there is complete absence of stories of harassment in the workplace. Women are afraid of losing their jobs amidst an absence of legal guarantees of justice,” said Bel Haj Hmida. “Having a general law for harassment in public places or in the workplace is essential, but it is not sufficient because women are still afraid.”

Bel Haj Hmida also highlighted the need for healthy workplaces that “don’t demean nor marginalize women,” and that seek to combat all forms of violence, on the basis of equality, be it a private or a public space.

Talking publicly about sexual harassment is key

Mozn Hassan, founder and executive director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, explained that the patriarchal system in Egypt triggers gender and status stereotypes. Adding that tere’s no political will for legislative reforms to combat sexual harassment. 

“The main problem is that society does not perceive sexual harassment as a crime for which the harasser should be punished,” said Hassan. “It is important to set up internal strategies in institutions, reform the Penal Code and the Labor Law, present a framework for legislation on violence of all sorts, and consider policies a tool, not an objective.”
Hassan also brought up the now-active conversation in Egypt about sexual harassment after dozens of women detailed sexual harassment allegations against a former male student at the American University of Cairo (AUC).

In the same context, Makhlouf called on universities to ensure a safe, non-discriminatory environment, and gave the example of the Sexual Harassment Policy of the American University of Beirut (AUB), since private institutions in Lebanon are creating their own codes of conduct.

According to AUB’s Sexual Harassment Policy, the university “prohibits retaliation against individuals who, in good faith, complain about, report, or assist others in reporting non-compliance with the university policy concerning.”

“AUB also prohibits retaliation against any person who provides evidence or otherwise participates in the investigation or resolution of a complaint under this policy,” says AUB’s policy. “These prohibitions include complaints brought to law enforcement or governmental bodies or participation in related proceedings outside of the University.”

Awareness, safe spaces, and civil society pressure, as means for change

Bel Haj Hmida emphasized the indispensable role of civil society in turning towards syndicates and holding them accountable in order to adopt the appropriate law that respects the dignity of women, because “there is a flattening, disrespect, and a strong violent response to issues of harassment by institutions, as if raising this issue undermines the security of the institution.”

Hassan concurred with the latter idea, and insisted on the importance of initiating awareness campaigns and creating safe spaces for women.

“With the majority of the legislators being male, and in a country like Egypt where we lack information flow freedom, defining employers is a complicated matter, and the fight won’t be over soon,” she said.

Makhlouf suggested the necessity of a common regional approach to the right for physical and psychological safety.

The “Anti-Sexual Harassment Protections in Workplaces Across the ARAB MENA” webinar was the second episode of the Knowledge is Power (KIP) HIWAR series of conversations that aim at “advanc[ing] inclusive business systems and workplaces in the region,” according to KIP.

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