Laws alone will not stop sexual harassment

Laws alone will not stop sexual harassment
3 min read
05 Aug, 2015
Comment: Alongside developing laws to prevent the sexual harassment of women Arab societies need to develop a culture that stops blaming the victims, writes Saadia Mufarreh.
Anti-sexual harassment graffiti in Cairo [AFP]

Women are not the only victims of the various forms of sexual harassment that exist in our societies. Some twisted people even sexually harass children, and according to studies, there are women who harass men.

However, the most prevalent form of sexual harassment is carried out by males, and here I do not want to described them as men, against women at any given opportunity, or whenever they feel like creating the opportunity, with the absence of a moral conscience and deterrent laws.

Despite sexual harassment being an international phenomenon that affects all societies, it is particularly prevalent in societies that do not have laws that clearly punish the disgraceful actions of harassers. Therefore, they carry out their attacks unrestrained, making women feel unsafe going about their daily lives.

I am not talking about a specific country or a specific society, as these criminals that do not see themselves as criminals at all could affect all of our societies, as they believe that their actions are merely acts of lighthearted mischief or acceptable flirtation.

In 1932, Egyptian journalist Fekry Abaza commented on sexual harassment as he observed it on the streets of Cairo by writing: "Those insolent youth purposefully stand on the tram platform close to the place designated for the women's boarding, and when they see a lady standing on her own, they approach and without prior acquaintance brazenly say: Bonsoir madam." 

     There is no excuse for the lack of clear and deterrent laws that protect women and contribute to the development of moral social norms.

This form of harassment incensed Abaza at the time and spurred him to criticise the youth who sat in that manner, so I wonder what he would write if he saw what goes on today on the streets of our conservative Arab countries, which often times borders or exceeds sexual attacks?

We need efforts such as Abaza's writings to raise awareness against social ills, because laws alone are not enough, especially when it comes to sexual harassment. Patriarchal societies views certain actions as being more of a deterrent than laws, however if society were lax on an issue such as sexual harassment, it would be really difficult to implement the law and combat this phenomenon.

With sexual harassment, even with the existence of laws, few victims would report cases of harassment while society adopts a culture of blaming the victim.

In most Arab countries, women stand to lose on the family, professional and social levels if they report harassment, even if the law does them justice. This is because our societies, despite the facade of modernity, still remain strictly patriarchal and women still remain the targets of various forms of patriarchal intimidation.

All of this is no excuse for the lack of clear and deterrent laws that protect women and contribute to the development of moral social norms. However, we should not rely on laws alone to safeguard women in society.

The sexual harassment of women in Arab Gulf countries that lack clear laws against such crimes have recently made headlines, after perpetrators were not held to account.

Some well-intentioned people believe that legislation to protect women would immediately end the problem, which is not the case at all, because even in countries that have such laws, harassment has not disappeared, although it is less of a phenomenon.

Therefore, along with clear and stringent laws against sexual harassment, which include quick reporting and investigation procedures that deal with complaints seriously and respectfully, society needs to play its role in criminalising such acts instead of justifying these crimes by blaming the victims.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.