Lebanese Campaign Demands Change in Public Perception of Sexual Assault

“I hate him”, “I can never forget him, I also dream about him”, “I couldn’t avenge myself, but surely God will avenge me”. This is how Jenny (an alias she gave us) began her journey in the aftermath of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her step-father. This is a true story that Majalla has published with the approval the Abaad Organization and a social worker. Jenny’s abuse story started when she was eight years old, when her drug addict father forced her to perform oral sex and threatened to beat her if she ever exposed him. Jenny said that when she tried telling her mother about the abuse, she did not consider her feelings; on the contrary, her mother made her even more afraid and told her to stay silent. Jenny added: “Perhaps fate saved me from the hands of this abuser after he was jailed for drug use. But I did not dare reveal this secret until I turned eighteen when I decided to break the silence and talk to my sister who stood by me and supported me.” Jenny also stated that “to this day I cannot forget what happened with him, I even see him in my dreams.” On her decision to break her silence and seek refuge with women’s organizations like Abaad she said, “When I was younger I couldn’t speak out, but now I decided to publicly speak in order to help and encourage other victims to voice their grievances”.
Finally, Jenny said “I wish I could turn back the clock and report my assault so that my abuser can get his punishment. I hope that one day I will have the opportunity to report all the crimes that I endured.” She sent this message to other women who have faced similar situations: “Break your silence and get your just reparations”.

Jenny’s story is the story of hundreds and thousands of women who fall victim to sexual abus, but are forced into silence due to their society’s view that being a victim of sexual abuse is “public disgrace” for both the individual and her family. As such, the victim cannot speak out about her abuse in protection of her and her family’s honor.

In an effort to combat societal views on abuse victims, the Abaad organization launched a campaign entitled "Shame on Who?" (#ShameOnWho on social media) to coincide with the 16th International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This campaign was launched in partnership with the Ministry for Women's Affairs and the National Commission for Lebanese Women and with the support of the Dutch and British Embassies in Lebanon, the Norwegian People's Aid and a number of other partners. A few days ago, many Lebanese citizens received a cryptic text message on their phones, with the question: “Shame on Who?”.Many went to social media platforms trying to decipher the meaning behind these messages. Days later the Abaad organization put out a video telling people that it sent this message and explained the reasons behind their action.


The Abaad organization decided to perform a social experiment that would challenge Lebanese society’s view on victims of rape and sexual violence. The organization hoped that such an experiment would serve as a reality lens for the Lebanese public.

Abaad published a video on their social media accounts in which an actress plays a rape victim. The video starts off with a young woman walking around in circles in a busy Lebanese street. As people start asking her what was troubling her, she starts crying and screaming, after which more people gather around her. At that que she yells “He took everything from me! He raped me!” After that, the onlookers start to get visibly dazed and confused and some tried to help her. Unfortunately, most of the people that initially wanted to console her shifted to shaming and name calling her “experienced slut”, “out of control woman” and “whore to many men”.  Astoundingly, no one from the crowd advised the young woman to go to the police and report her rape. The video also showed some women comforting her by telling her that no one needs to know what happened “behind closed doors”, as if she was the one who had to be ashamed of herself.

Despite its use of a reality lens (a method that’s rarely used for social issues in the region), the Abaad Organization could not escape detractors who doubted the authenticity of the video, accusing the crowd of being actors. The group also received multiple online critics and bullies who shut down the video’s contents without considering its main message.  Nevertheless, there were many people who praised the video and commended Abaad for tackling the issue and attempting to change Lebanese society’s attitude of shaming victims of abuse and rape. They also appreciated the group’s efforts to change public opinion and get people to consider rape as a serious crime that should be punished as such, it is for this reason that the group came up with the slogan “Punish Rapists the Same Way You Would Victims”.


According to Internal Security Forces Directorate’s 2017 statistics, 13 women a month report being sexually abused; this is equivalent to three women getting sexually abused in one week. Meanwhile 229 cases of sexual assault were recorded between January 2016 and August 2017. These statistics do not distinguish whether the assault is the result of an act of rape or harassment, or whether it falls within the sexual exploitation of girls forced into prostitution.


Lawyer Danielle Al Hawiek from the Abaad Organization spoke to Majalla and said that the “Shame On Who?” campaign had its beginnings in 2016 and is a continuation of “The White Veil Does Not Cover Rape: Repeal Article 522 from Lebanese Penal Code” campaign of that year. That campaign sought to repeal Article 522, which contained a loophole that allowed rapists to escape prosecution in cases where the victim’s family agreed to let the former marry the latter. Over time, this campaign evolved to the wider “Shame On Who?” campaign, which aims to get the public to view rape in all its forms as a deplorable crime, as well as reshape the legal system to support victims of rape, rather than judge them. Al Hawiek also pointed that “the large number of women who become victims of sexual abuse has persuaded us to change our tactics and shift to an integrated plan of action, especially since working on the legal framework alone would not suffice our goals. To help prevent future victims, we also have to start working on the cultural system and then move on to the next phase of changing laws and tightening penalties. Thus our work on the legal dimension via article 522 was the initial step in the preparation for the next stages to change the cultural system that prioritises women’s so-called honour. That way we’re simultaneously working on both the legal and cultural frameworks that allow sexual abuse to go unpunished.”


According to Al Hawiek, the third stage of Abaad’s strategy focuses mainly on tightening punishments of sexual abuse and hastening court rulings on cases of sexual abuse, especially cases of rape. Moreover, she wants to change the culture of shame that prevents victims from reporting their cases of assault. She also seeks to create a new public perception that views rape as a serious crime that should be severely punished, as well as give female rape victims the courage to publicly expose their abusers and get them to court quickly so that justice can be served. 

Al Hawiek went on to say that: “It is absolutely unacceptable that in the 21st century, we still negatively view and insult victims of sexual abuse, just as the people in the video insulted the actress. This shows that a large portion of society lacks the intuition of how to treat sexual abuse victims, since most people in the video resorted to accusing and scolding the actress who played a victim. Such reactions diminish the victim’s dignity and results in more negative implications on their psychological state of mind and their social status. This culture of silence allows more of these crimes to continue, it is for this reason that we increase social awareness of sexual abuse victims.”


The way the people in the video reacted to the “victim” is a micro chasm of how society as a whole treats real life victims of sexual abuse.
Al Hawiek stressed that although Abaad succeed in getting a wide response from the video, it was unfortunate that many questioned the authenticity of the video, since it reflects the reality of society and how it abuses victims of sexual assault rather than help them.

In response to some who questioned the credibility of the reactions in the video, Al-Hawiek confirmed that "we carefully considered and studied a scenario on how a girl who was raped in a suburban neighbourhood would act and she would go about asking for help from people. It was prepared in a comprehensive and representative manner and with high craftsmanship by an integrated team of 5 people. A number of abuse and rape victims came to guide the actress in terms of how they would act in such a situation. She went on to say that "the individuals who appeared in the video were not aware what was happening, with the exception of the homeowners residing in the places where the cameras were placed”, noting that "the filming took place in several places, and the final product was composed of clips from various areas”.

She explained that the method adopted by Abaad in their campaigns aimed to instill shock among individuals of society and thus address them in an effective way to deliver the message required.

She also stressed that the purpose of the video presentation is a purely humanitarian one to support women who are subjected to sexual assault and to change society's view on said victims. She pointed out that, to some extent, the video contributed to more societal awareness of how difficult it is to be a female victim of rape, and the importance of holding the rapist accountable for his actions. Thus the video has taught some people how to act when falling in such a situation and how to help the victim.


Finally, Al-Hawiek addressed rape victims by telling them that "You are strong enough and able to stand alone without the need of society, while your body has been forcibly exploited, there is one thing that rapists cannot exploit…. your human dignity”.


Abaad began to address the issue of rape in 2016 when it launched the campaign “The White Veil Does Not Cover Rape: Repeal Article 522 from Lebanese Penal Code” that sought to repeal Article 522, which it successfully did. In 2017, the organization started the “Life for Life” campaign, which focused on rape committed in private spaces, especially cases of private rape committed by a family member. Now in 2018, they started the “Shame on Who?” campaign which aims to try all cases of rape no matter the situation, and to reshape public perception of rape victims, so that society will support them rather than judge them.


While it is important to educate and raise awareness of abuse victims within Lebanese society, it is also paramount that the penal code supports raped and abused women . "There is an urgent need to tighten penalties for sexual assault and to speed up trials," Al Hawaik said. She has pointed to some penal code articles that she still had problems with, particularly Article 505 (amended in 2017). This article  states that a person who sexually abuses a minor under 15 years of age will be subject to temporary hard labor for at least five years. The penalty shall not be less than seven years if the minor is under 12 years of age. If a man raped a minor between the ages of 15 and 17, then he is liable to imprisonment for two months to two years. However, there is a loophole for the third case: if a valid marriage is agreed upon between the family of the victim and the family of the rapist, the prosecution can cease but only on the basis of a social worker’s report that assess the victim’s psychological state of mind and well-being. If the decision is issued to stop the prosecution for marriage, then the judge shall instruct the social worker to asses and write a report on the psychological status of the minor after the marriage every six months within a period of three years from the date of the decision.

Al Hawaik stressed that such punishments are not enough and that it was important that more severe punishments are introduced to the penal code, moreover these punishments should not present the rapist with a loophole that would allow him to escape prosecution.


It was felt that although article 522, which provided the exemption of the perpetrator from his crimes in the event of a marriage between him and his victim, was removed from the Penal Code, it has still not been effectively abolished since it had been transferred to articles 505 and 518 of said Penal Code. So, in a sense this is a case of going one-step forward, two steps back. Al Hawaik states that the only progress that was done in regards to this law is the fact that a social worker’s report on the well-being of the victim is now required.


After the video, the Abaad organization participated in the Beirut International Marathon on November 11, this encouraged female activists to run in the marathon, while other female supporters who decided not to run, instead carried signs and slogans against the culture of victim shaming and justification for the rapist. The originzation is scheduled to spend the coming weekend (Novermber 17 - 18) painting a group graffiti on the same issue in Corniche Al Mazraa area. The activity will be accompanied by a petition signing calling for tougher punishments for rapists and sexual harrasers. The campaign is also due to culminate with a theater show that is set to be scheduled in the next few days.