Rape survivors are fighting back against victim-blaming in Lebanon

"I've been raped," Manal Issa shouts as she staggers down a street in Beirut.A crowd gathers around t...

Posted: Dec 14, 2018 11:32 AM
Updated: Dec 14, 2018 11:32 AM

"I've been raped," Manal Issa shouts as she staggers down a street in Beirut.

A crowd gathers around the woman who appears disoriented and frantic. Some people encourage her to "calm down" and "keep it quiet." Others scold her for wearing a mini-skirt. One man accuses her of being a drug addict.

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Manal is an actor in a social experiment organized by the Lebanese women's rights group ABAAD last month. During the nine or so hours when Manal emulated a rape victim, not a single bystander called the police.

The aim of the experiment -- part of a weeks-long campaign called #ShameOnWho -- was to expose the stigma attached to rape victims, activists say.

"In general, people think that she's the loose one, she's the one to blame and she's the one who should be held accountable," says ABAAD's founder Ghida Anani.

"We're trying to encourage women who are survivors of rape to speak up, to get out from the cycle and culture of victim-blaming," says Anani.

Despite concerted movements by Lebanese civil society to tackle gender-based violence, the problem is growing. In 1994, 30% of women in Lebanon said they experienced some form of violence, according to United Nations figures. Today that figure is closer to 60%, according to data compiled by ABAAD from various ministries, the police and media reporting.

It's unclear if the increase in claims is due to a greater willingness to report the violence or an actual rise in the number of attacks or a mix of both, Anani says.

But activists have pushed hard against the trend. Awareness campaigns promoting gender equity are prominent and hard-hitting, and activists have kept up sustained pressure on government to introduce legislation to protect women.

In 2014, Lebanon's parliament passed its first-ever law criminalizing domestic violence. In 2017, it repealed a legal loophole that acquitted rapists who marry their victims. Still, Lebanon's penal code has some way to go. No minimum legal age for marriage exists in the country and marital rape remains legal.

Speaking up

In five Beirut locations, artists volunteering with ABAAD have painted black and white murals of rapists' faces, sketched out from the memories of the survivors.

"These are wanted men," says Anani. "Today, the spotlight should be on the people who are doing this kind of behavior and not those who are subject to it."

Not yet willing to step out of the shadows, survivors are speaking out through artists and activists.

One woman, identified as Reham, recorded her story on an audio file. Reham was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her older brother from the age of 8 to 28. When she finally spoke up, her mother called her a "liar."

Sitting on a chair in a sparsely furnished room, actress Hiba Sleiman listens to Reham's recording through an ear piece, retelling the moment of confrontation between mother and daughter.

"I wouldn't be able to tell you how she tore off my hijab, how she tore off my clothes and inspected me from head to toe while she beat me and insulted me repeatedly. When it was over, I said 'did you get what you wanted?' ... I carried my torn clothes and cried and screamed, and cried and screamed. And nobody heard me."

Hiba describes audiences going from room to room at Zico House, a cultural center in Beirut, listening to six actors tell survivors' stories as part of an immersive play, organized by #ShameOnWho.

"It was moving. It was intense. A lot of people cried. Some people couldn't watch all of the scenes. Some people walked out of specific scenes in the middle of them," says Hiba.

"We don't have the space for telling these stories so often. We hear these stories on Facebook, or on TV but we never really encounter these people in our lives."

But Lebanon's civil society appears determined to give women a larger platform and counter social practices perceived as sexist.

Last month, women's rights activists called for the boycott of the television channel MTV Lebanon after it aired an interview with Mohammed al-Nheily, the husband and convicted killer of 33-year-old Manal Assi, in a program on Lebanese prisoners called Out of Freedom. Activists criticized what they said was an overly sympathetic portrayal of the man who bludgeoned Assi to death. In his tearful interview, Nheily said he "regretted" the 2014 murder and longed to "turn back time so that neither (he) nor Manal had done wrong."

The episode also featured an actress depicting Manal from beyond the grave, urging non-profit organizations and lawyers to "stop speaking on her behalf" and suggesting that the murder could have been avoided if only she and Mohammed had "talked about (their) feelings."

"It is clear beyond doubt that the aim of this episode -- however much you deny it -- was to justify the murder by having the interview focus on the anger that possessed Mohammed Al-Nheily," wrote women's rights group KAFA in a Facebook post addressing MTV.

"The case was summed up as a crime in which both parties bore equal responsibility," it added.

MTV said it gave Nheily "the same treatment" as previous prisoners it interviewed in Out of Freedom.

"The program gave an opportunity to the killer of Manal al-Assi to speak in the same way that it gave an opportunity to 90 prisoners before him. They all provided the reasons and circumstances that led them to commit the different crimes, including domestic crimes," said the program's presenter Samir Youssef in a statement to CNN.

"The case of Manal Assi coincided with the efforts of non-profit organizations to develop women's rights laws. So, it was natural that this episode would have caused reactions, especially since the murderer Mohamad al-Nheily was speaking to the media for the first time since he committed the crime."

Shamed into silence

"I called it a rape of my rights," says one woman, who requests anonymity to avoid personal repercussions.

She says an ex-lover once secretly videotaped a sexual encounter between them and blackmailed her with it.

She says he threatened to send the sex tape to her colleagues and family.

"He said ... 'I'm going to send it to the whole society for them to see what a bad person you are,'" the woman recalls.

For two months, the woman cried herself to sleep until she mustered the courage to confront her harasser.

"I told him 'you can show the video to whoever you want ... This is my body and I'm free to do whatever I want. I'm free to sleep with whoever I want," she says.

Shortly after that, she had the video deleted after one of her male friends took her harasser's phone away from him.

Throughout her ordeal, she never resorted to the police or her family. "They would have told me it was my fault for going to the hotel with him, for being so easy, for doing whatever I felt like doing," she says.

Still unable to drop the veil of anonymity, she nevertheless calls on other women to "face their fears."

"We should always know we are victims, we are not the ones who did wrong. The ones who did wrong are the ones who failed to gain our trust."

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