Lebanon’s parliament passed a law criminalizing sexual harassment.
Under the law passed on Monday, offenders can now be sentenced to up to four years in prison and fined up to 15,525,000 Lebanese pounds ($10,350), or 23 times the minimum monthly wage, which stands at 675,000 Lebanese pounds ($450).
Marcelle Dalal, a gender expert and women’s rights activist in Lebanon, told The Media Line that the law providing a clear definition of sexual harassment was long overdue since, until now, the penal code only covered rape and “unethical behavior.”
“Even though it came late, to have a law that defines all kinds of harassment in the country forms a very important step that’s the first in a long journey,” Dalal said.
Expanding the definition of sexual harassment enables the punishment of any such actions that are not physical, including electronic harassment, she explained.
Dalal added, however, that the law would not solve the problem, because ending the culture of harassment would require societal change on several levels.
“For instance, prior to the new bill, if a girl was blackmailed online, the Publication Law would be used to charge the offender. It’s completely divorced from the harassment issue,” she said. “Under the new law, I can now call the case by its name, harassment.”
At least now there’s a law to punish offenders, unlike before. A good lawyer in coordination with the judicial system can reach harassers and punish them.
The law will lead to other important changes, Dalal added, since “once Lebanese society gets used to criminalizing harassment, the culture will start to slowly change. It will not solve the entire problem, but part of it.”
Despite the fact that the bill is incomplete and imperfect, Lebanon must start implementing it, she said. It can then be evaluated properly, in order to suggest amendments in three years’ time, or five years or more, Dalal said.
“At least now there’s a law to punish offenders, unlike before. A good lawyer in coordination with the judicial system can reach harassers and punish them,” she said.
What is good about the long-discussed legislation, Dalal said, is “that it will be implemented everywhere, especially in work places, where it is needed the most.”
One problem with the legislation, according to human rights organizations and activists, is that it only allows victims to seek redress in the criminal courts and not through lawsuits in civil courts. This means the cases will be public, possibly discouraging victims from filing complaints.
Additionally, it puts the burden on the victim to prove the harassment and its consequences, rather than requiring the defendant to demonstrate innocence, which is often the case under the legal system Lebanon inherited from France.
Also on Monday, the parliament expanded the 2014 domestic violence law to “penalize economic and psychological violence,” but it did not specifically criminalize marital rape.
Asaad Bishara, an analyst who served as an adviser to former justice minister Ashraf Rifi, told The Media Line it was better for the harassment law to come late than to not come at all, but that its sanctions were insufficient given the severity of the offenses.
“I believe this does not put Lebanon on the right track in terms of international standards, despite the social and civil demand for strictness in this very dangerous topic, which not only reflects social deviation, but undermines the dignity and humanity of women,” Bishara said.
He stressed that women were equal to men, and any kind of violence, discrimination or sexual harassment against them must be met with deterrent punishments, “considering that such acts poison society and place the nation that doesn’t deter them on the list of backward countries.”
Activist Reem Haidar told The Media Line that criminalizing sexual harassment only in 2020 is shameful, humiliating and embarrassing for a country like Lebanon, which presents itself globally and locally as a modern and developed state, as well as a member of the United Nations and committed to its human rights agreements.
In our society the harassed girl is blamed, not the offender
“Shame on all of the authorities that came since the establishment of Lebanon, whether executive, legislative, or constitutional or the presidency, for not prioritizing this legislation, as it protects their wives, mothers, daughters,” Haidar said.
“It’s shameful that we are discussing this law today” and not years ago, she said.
Haidar said that the punishment must fit the crime, and that sexual harassment in all its forms, whether physical or verbal, inflicts damage – socially, psychologically and morally.
“In our society the harassed girl is blamed, not the offender. Therefore, I believe the punishment has to be equal to the harm caused to the victim,” she said.
Haidar added that if a victim needs 20 years to heal from sexual harassment, the harasser should be sent to prison for 20 years. “I think the punishments listed [in the new law] are silly, just like the authorities behind them,” she said.
Haidar suggested that perhaps the only benefit of the new law is that it would allow Lebanon to participate without shame in international conferences on fighting sexual harassment.