I have been working in the media for 25 years, and I know of many cases in which men have used their financial, political and media influence to put pressure on women and younger girls financially, professionally, and sometimes even politically, for sexual purposes.
This used to take place with no repercussions at all. Some women resisted silently and gave up their rights and positions, while others simply accepted the pressure under the burden of their needs or weakness.
The past few weeks have made it impossible to disregard sexual abuse, as it has become embedded at the heart of the Western culture, and has triggered a sort of uprising; women who kept silent in the past have emerged to tell their stories. However, this has not been the case in the Arab region; and I do not mean to condemn only the sexual abuse that happens in the streets, but also how some empowered people behave.
Last week, Michael Fallon, the British defense secretary, admitted having harassed a female journalist 15 years ago, and resigned. Compare that with two incidents in this part of the world. The former Egyptian information minister, Salah Abdel-Maksoud, told a female journalist interviewing him on TV: “I hope your questions are not as hot as you are.” And during a diplomatic visit, the Lebanese Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil was filmed using sexist hand gestures to describe the physical appearance of a female employee, to her obvious discomfort. Neither politician was punished or held accountable for his behavior; in fact, Bassil is still foreign affairs minister. Accountability in this region does not exist.
Sexual harassment is rampant in the Arab world because we are conflicted about women’s role in society, and the victim is often blamed for her own abuse.
Sexual harassment in the Arab world is common, but it is often protected by the public’s understanding of what is normal and acceptable with regard to women’s position in society; often, when a woman is sexually harassed, our culture blames the woman herself instead of the guilty man. Our society considers harassment part of the seduction process, and not an assault against women.
No woman is able to speak out about sexual harassment, and there is no social and professional system to hold wrongdoers accountable. The whole environment is one of a failure to accept responsibility or to take this issue seriously. Our society encourages victims to remain silent; they are made to feel as if they are overreacting if they decide to be courageous enough to speak up, resist or reject. They are portrayed as being responsible for their own harassment, or accused of lacking a sense of humor.
To deter sexual abuse, we must first identify limits and levels that separate harassment from other behavior toward women, and then hold the abusers accountable. Instead, our culture condemns the harassed victim and forgives the harasser. It’s the same old story; we live in a male-controlled society.
• Diana Moukalled is a veteran journalist with extensive experience in both traditional and new media. She is also a columnist and freelance documentary producer.