9-11-2022, 17:52

Published in: Jummar Media 

Balsam Mustafa - Ban Layla

In early October, a girl from Baghdad was subjected to a form of sexual harassment on public transport. Using her mobile phone, she documented the incident and shared it online with the help of her friends to expose the harasser and demand accountability. Soon, when other women shared the video, it went viral on Iraqi Social Media and moved to the mainstream media. The dissemination of the video contributed to a huge controversy and resulted in mixed reactions.

On the one hand, women of various ages and backgrounds were encouraged to speak up against harassment, offering solidarity with the girl. On the other hand, some objected to filming the harasser as he was practising masturbation on public transport, because they saw this as a violation of his “personal freedom.” Others went further, including a media figure on a television program, condemning the girl’s filming of the harasser, accusing her of questioning her morals and reputation. An Iraqi artist commented in the “story” feature on Instagram, using Iraqi colloquial dialect: “Folks, it is not the wolf’s fault. Tell me what the Little Red Riding Hood was doing in the woods in the middle of the night! It is better to stop here”. This despicable analogy and metaphor had a sole purpose, which was to tarnish the victim and hold her responsible for the guilt committed by the harasser.

Similar reactions re-surfaced after a similar video was shared by another girl, showing a taxi driver working for a private company that uses an electronic application, akin to “Uber” in other countries. In Iraq, women generally prefer to use these taxi applications, as they are safer than the traditional way of getting taxis, since they provide the driver’s personal information. The shocking video showed the girl trembling in fear while filming the driver masturbating. Despite the girl’s complaint to the company, it was dismissed as fabrication, according to her post on Twitter.

The responses were not very different when a new video circulated online, showing Baqir al-Saadi, an MP in the State of Law Bloc, filming his female colleague in the Iraqi parliament without her awareness or consent. Some justified the MP, saying he was just filming the session’s proceedings. 

When another shocking video of mass sexual harassment, a fairly recently imported phenomenon from other countries, against two women in a theme park in al-Qurnah town in Basra province spread online, many blamed the victims. The video revealed how the two women were assaulted, their clothes were torn, forcing them to hide in a small shop until security forces were called. According to eyewitnesses, when one of the two girls fainted, no one intervened to protect her. When the security forces came, they only transferred them to another place without holding the perpetrators accountable. Even the person filming the assault could be heard uttering obscene words to shame the two girls over their clothes.

Despite public condemnation of the shocking video, some did not hesitate to question the morals of the two girls for daring to enter a theme park in a conservative area governed by tribal customs and traditions.

Meanwhile, a new video showed media and political figures harassing a well-known female program presenter on air, without her objecting or denouncing it. Many have described the guests’ comments on the beauty of the program presenter as nothing more than “flirting”.

How does harassment grow?

The phenomenon of harassment in Iraq has plagued society, threatening women. The responses to the above videos present a paradox and beg several questions: How can harassment in its various forms become rampant in a society that claims to adhere to values, morals and virtue? How can it prevail in a society that distinguishes itself from other societies by its “masculine zeal” in defending the homeland, family and women? Is it moral to justify for the harasser? Is it ethical to harass the victim twice: first through the act and then through justification and sympathy for the harasser?

Is the problem inherent in this language and the narratives it triggers? Has the concept of “masculine zeal” been weaponised as a masculine sword directed at women’s necks under the pretext of “honour” and “chastity”? Has it normalised harassment as a tool for reprimanding and punishing “unruly” women according to the viewpoint and definition of conservative societies, excluding them from the public space?

To answer all these questions and correct many misconceptions, it is necessary first to define harassment and identify its multiple and overlapping causes.

Harassment is a type of sexual abuse practised without the consent of the other party – often the woman – in public or private spaces, including the street, workplace, or even the house. 

Harassment includes a set of physically and psychologically violent behaviours, violating the other’s privacy and causing embarrassment, annoyance, insult, intimidation, abuse, or profanity.

These include verbal and physical harassment. Examples of the former are:

  • Flirting phrases and inappropriate comments.

  • Requesting personal information or making physical movements and gestures such as winking.

  • Whistling and screaming.

Examples of the latter are touching or stalking a woman. Sexual harassment is another form, which includes sharing pornographic images, revealing sensitive parts of the body in front of the victim, and practising masturbation in public places. With the advent of digital technologies, “online harassment” is added to the list and includes sharing pornographic images, threats and blackmailing.

All forms of harassment aim to subdue and intimidate the victim. But mass sexual harassment seeks to humiliate the victim and deprive her of her dignity for not conforming to prevailing social norms.

Harassment is widespread in all societies. It is deeply connected to the patriarchal system and its discourses. Accordingly, social roles are pre-determined in a hierarchical manner that gives preference and priority to men at the expense of women. Children are brought up holding up to traditional gender roles and stereotypes, distinguishing between boys and girls according to their biological sex.

In Iraq, as in other conservative societies, the male child is raised with an entitlement by which he imposes control over girls while being allowed relatively unrestricted freedom of movement, choices, and personal decisions. In contrast, the girl is brought up to be submissive to the male authority while holding her responsible for protecting herself by covering to avoid sin and vice. Otherwise, she will face dire consequences.

Herein lies another paradox: despite the discriminatory and hierarchical upbringings, there is an indirect recognition of the role of men in abusing women. Girls are taught to fear men and always be alert instead of raising male children to show respect to women. The responsibility will fall on women alone if they fail to protect themselves from abuse. 

This upbringing enables the right conditions for harassment, fuelled by dominant religious and cultural narratives, perpetuating this hierarchical relationship and the inferior view of women. The religious principle of “turning down one’s gaze”, which commands men to avoid committing sins, so to speak, was marginalised. If a man had committed himself to lower his gaze and guard his modesty, he would not have used harassment to control “those who do not adhere” to societal norms. Instead, men are brought up to commit to the principle of “prevention of vice”. Because vice is often associated with women, it is men’s responsibility to prevent it.

Male authority means owning and controlling the public space. When a woman is part of this space, she shifts from being the private property of the father, brother, husband, or tribe to becoming public property. As such, harassment becomes a legitimate behaviour targeting the most vulnerable groups in society, especially women and children.

Traditions and tribes that allow harassment

The (male) authority’s seizure of the public space in which women are transformed into public property not only enables harassment but makes it difficult to undermine. The absence of official statistics on harassment points to the lack of political will to diagnose and address violence and harassment, as is the case in Iraq.

Similarly, the absence of linguistic terminology in laws and regulations that explicitly and directly refers to harassment further complicates the problem. The Iraqi Penal Code does not contain any legal text that uses the term harassment. Instead, other words are used to denote physical or sexual harassment, such as assault by “force”, “menaces”, or “deception”, as stipulated in Article 396. According to this article, the convict is sentenced to seven years imprisonment. The sentence can be extended to ten years in some instances, such as when the victim is under 18.

In other instances, it is implied in the following phrases: “Any person who makes indecent advances to another man or woman” or “any person who assails a woman in a public place in an immodest manner with words, actions or signs,” as stipulated in Article 402 of the same law. Accordingly, the sentence is three months imprisonment and a fine, provided that it is doubled to six months if repeated within a year from the date of the previous ruling.

Therefore, the lack of deterrent laws which represent the cornerstone for curbing harassment and mitigating its physical, psychological, and emotional effects on the victim, reinforces the phenomenon of harassment and its growth.

This is further complicated by tribal power and influence, which undermines the implementation of the above legal articles. The judiciary often resolves cases and complaints through tribal reconciliation, as indicated by an Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights report on sexual harassment in Iraq.

There is a strong denial and refusal to acknowledge harassment, especially by the tribal system, because admitting harassment would contradict its claims of protecting women. Acknowledging harassment against a family or tribal member will mean recognising the tribal system’s failure to preserve and protect women through exercising guardianship over their bodies and restricting or controlling their movement.

The Iraqi courts’ submissiveness to tribal authority is an indictment of the fragility and erosion of Iraq’s legal and legislative system and state institutions due to corruption, the quota system, and nepotism. It is also a testament to the increasing power of militias and tribes at the expense of the formal security apparatus. According to several women interviewed by researcher Balsam Mustafa, the security forces fail to intervene to protect them if they ask for their help to deter harassers.

Harassment … even on TV screens

International and Arab cinema, media, dramas and songs have also played a role in normalising harassment. By addressing it with a satirical comic framework that makes the viewer laugh with the harasser over the victim, harassment is turned into a very acceptable practice. In such representations, insulting women becomes an entertaining tool, making it difficult to view harassment as a physical or sexual violation. Rather, it is minimised into a source of laughter in the absence of constructive criticism for decades.

Who can, in the end, question beloved artists with titles that surround them with an aura of sacredness? Who can critique the “Leader” Adel Imam or “the star of the generation, the legend of the century” Tamer Hosny, for example? Who can object to their role in depicting harassment as love, flirting, or joking? Even if the Arab media condemns the phenomenon of harassment, it turns a blind eye to the role of high-profile actors or singers in its normalisation.

The Iraqi media is not any different. For example, the popular sarcastic TV Show, Wilayat Batikh, or “Melon City”, tries to address many negative social phenomena through satire in a demeaning manner to women, reinforcing the same stereotypes about men and women in Iraq. Harassment is one of the tools the program used to circulate those depictions. Over the past seasons, harassment has been used as a joke and presented as normal, acceptable, funny, and pleasant.

In one of the scenes in season six of the show aired two years ago, we see four young men in the street mourning their misfortune and crying over their peacefulness and non-violent character. As a result, they could not deal with society and the people surrounding them. Therefore, they decide that they will change through the practice of “Tasjeem” – the Iraqi slang word for verbal harassment. As one puts it, harassment would make them “impolite.” Meanwhile, a young woman passes by, playfully asking them about the house of one of her acquaintances in the neighbourhood. The young men take the opportunity to harass her, but they fail miserably. So, the woman responds sarcastically, teaching them a lesson in how to practice the correct form of harassment.

This short scene is a striking example of how the show is subscribing to the dominant societal and cultural narratives about the meanings of masculinity. A polite man is rejected by society, and until he becomes a “true” man, harassment is the appropriate means to free him from politeness and to refine his manhood. Harassment is considered a heroic act. A man usually brags about his ability to harass women because it is evidence of his masculinity. Even the Iraqi woman herself makes fun of him by rejecting the personality of a polite man. All she had to do was teaching him the correct harassment! Here, the program conveyed another dangerous message about the satisfaction and happiness of Iraqi women with harassment.

The “Melon City” is not the only show in this regard. Another comedy program called “Khosh Hajji” [Good talk] communicated the same message in one of its scenes between its two main characters. The woman is happy when she sees the man harassing her in the manner of the sixties or seventies of the last century. The danger in such scenes lies in portraying verbal harassment as flirting, not as a violation of the woman’s privacy.

In another talk show, an Iraqi actress was asked about her opinion of the appropriate punishment for the harasser. She replied: “That he is harassed,” and the interviewer responded: “By God, I would be happy if you harassed him.”

With the rise in harassment cases and the increasing rejection by Iraqi women, the producers of the “Melon City” show finally decided to change their approach. In a recent episode, the program tried to address this phenomenon by highlighting harassment in governmental institutions in a sarcastic yet critical manner, not devoid of superficiality and problems. For example, the script reinforced the problematic concepts of derogating and belittling women by reducing her to her “husband’s honour”. Can we criticise this phenomenon through comedy and laughter? Will we laugh at or with the harasser in this case?

Veiled or unveiled.. Women are always to blame!

Almost all girls and women, including the writers of these lines, have been harassed and decided not to speak up for fear of “blame”, “suspicion” and “lack of sympathy”.

Why do we blame the victim? Considering the above, the answer seems obvious: blaming women and holding them responsible for the violations they are subjected to is a culture rooted in all societies. Many stereotypes, myths and wrong societal norms consolidate victim blaming. Religion is also utilised as a tool for reinforcing and creating social systems based on this culture.

Victim blaming is first enabled by the religious and jurisprudential discourse imposed by Islamic religious authorities, including those in Iraq. Such discourse is characterised by masculine readings that exclude women or reduce their status in life and society. As the late Moroccan feminist academic Fatema Mernissi and Lebanese researcher Rita Faraj remind us, this jurisprudence has established an anti-equality and discriminatory discourse, distinguishing between men and women, and veiled and unveiled women. 

Thus, sympathy with the woman became conditional on the extent of her “chastity,” “honour,” and “shyness”. According to religious and tribal standards, these concepts are dictated by the length of a woman’s dress, how much of her body is covered, and her commitment to the confines of the home to avoid mixing with men.

A quick search on YouTube reveals dozens of videos devoted to this discriminatory and exclusionary discourse, justifying the harasser even if the opposite is claimed. The paradox is that if harassment is condemned, the condemnation is contingent upon reminding the woman that she is the direct or implicit cause of it. This condemnation raises the problem of blaming the victim herself. It loses its impact when motives and reasons for harassment are assigned to women’s clothes, how they speak, their behaviour, etc.

It’s worth noting that the claim that the veiled woman is “immune” against verbal and physical harassment and all other forms of violations is a false one. If we take Egypt as an example, where the veil is very common, most women, 99%, have been subjected to harassment, according to a report published by the United Nations in 2013.

The culture of victim-blaming is a general phenomenon in all countries. However, it varies in intensity from one context to another due to a diverse set of factors, as researcher Jessica Taylor reveals in her book Why Women are Blamed for Everything: Exposing a Culture of Victim-Blaming. According to Taylor, blaming the victim erases the perpetrator from the picture, absolves him of responsibility and impedes accountability.

In Iraq, the state, the tribe, and the community, intentionally or unintentionally, contribute to wiping the perpetrators out of the picture, thereby eliminating their responsibility towards the victims. First, by not considering her a victim, but rather responsible for what happened to her, and thus ignoring the psychological and physical effects she suffers from. Second, by establishing and promoting the victim-blaming narrative while overlooking educating the perpetrators and society in general to reject these narratives and the practices resulting from them.

Your phone is your weapon… Documenting harassment is resistance

When authorities failed to stand up against the phenomenon of harassment, women who were victims decided to confront the harassment themselves, by breaking the silence-albeit partially – by resorting to mobile phone cameras and Social Media as a weapon to deter harassers.

The video filmed by the girl on public transport in the Karrada district was not unprecedented. Over recent years, and from time to time, similar footage or experiences were shared by other Iraqi women or through a third party, including activists or accounts of women’s rights organisations.

However, the response was bigger this time. Many women started to speak up about their experiences with harassment, breaking the societal chains in an effort to achieve social justice.

Soon, female activists launched the hashtag #Stop_the harasser of Karrada to draw the attention of public opinion and relevant governmental institutions. The hashtag encouraged others to follow suit and publish other videos successively. Calls for filming and exposing the harasser as a form of deterrence or societal punishment have been reiterated in light of the absence of legal punishment. 

This local movement is not exceptional. There are similar regional movements against sexual harassment, such as Egypt‘s anti-harassment movement and the “I will not be silenced” campaign in Kuwait, for example. The mediadescribed both as local versions of the global movement “MeToo.

Unlike the #Me Too movement, the Iraqi movement against sexual harassment by resorting to the mobile phone and Social Media as a deterrent weapon for documenting and shaming is a local movement led by ordinary young women who are not famous personalities. Their struggle is rooted in their local reality and suffering, especially in the post-2003 era.

During this era, the tribal system and its traditions have dominated and replaced the legal and judicial systems. This is compounded by the weakness of the security system in favour of militias and armed factions, which has created a fertile environment for harassment and other violations. The rapid communication with the world through Social Media and its misuse by some, has also contributed to identifying new ways and forms of harassment.

The movement against harassment by resorting to the phone and Social Media is nothing but a resistance movement. It is led by the victims of harassment who wish to achieve justice through societal punishment amid the absence of any legal alternative. In doing so, they seek to deter potential future harassers for fear of defamation and scandal by spreading their photos or personal information about them.

Indeed, after the hashtag #stop_the harasser of Karrada was trending amid women’s solidarity, the harasser was reportedly arrested. Meanwhile, anecdotes were shared among activists about men hesitating to harass women. The article’s author, “Ban Laila”, reports a similar first-hand account. While walking in a Baghdadi street after the harassment video, she heard two men joking and telling each other to be polite to avoid online shaming.

Society’s solidarity with women

Resistance by documenting the harassment and sharing it online is a brave act. Nonetheless, it remains risky, mainly due to the absence of family support. Many girls do not tell anyone, especially their families, that they have been subjected to harassment.

In an environment governed by tribes, armed factions, and religious clerics, questions remain about the safety of girls who decide to take this step, and the consequences they might face if their identities are exposed. The reaction of the harasser cannot be predicted every time in a country dominated by militias. Perhaps this explains why a girl was trembling while she was filming the harasser (the taxi driver in her case) masturbating for fear of the consequences.

These risks raise a question about the role of civil society in supporting women in their fight against harassment. Despite the support and solidarity by women’s rights organisations, particularly for the #FilmTheHarasser campaign, there is still a lot to be done. 

According to activists in this field, even though there are many civil society groups and human or women’s rights organisations, their impact remains mostly limited to a particular group. Most of the programs adopted by these organisations are redundant and traditional, lacking effective strategies to reach a larger segment of society. As a result, a huge gap exists between these organisations and the Iraqi woman and her concerns.

Feminist activist Zahra Walid comments in this regard: “There is an Iraq other than the Iraq in which we work (in the organisations), an Iraq far from the work of human rights organisations, feminist activities, awareness campaigns, seminars and workshops that talk about violence and harassment. What happened in Basra is a case of a mass assault. But I feel that we are isolated and disconnected from what is happening. Our work remains afar. We have a lot of problems, flaws and big gaps between work and reality. It doesn’t make sense that a thousand young men stood by watching and did nothing to help the two ladies in Basra. It is unreasonable that no one has read a single work we produced about harassment, or has been influenced by our campaigns and could not have any awareness that would make them stop this brutal assault".

The Iraqi woman needs real and concrete solidarity with her in her fight against harassment. She needs a collective call to confront harassment through legislation that protects and enables her to go on with her life, work, and study. Legal, media and educational institutions need to come together to develop plans and policies that address these behaviours at their roots. We need to rethink our moral system and formulate new concepts, that enable accountability for perpetrators and boost confidence in Iraqi women. The existing system has failed miserably in protecting their dignity and independence and achieving societal security in general.

A woman does not need clichés to remind her that she is the mother, the sister, the wife, and the lover while she is threatened, harassed and abused everywhere. She needs to know that abuses are not her fault or her guilt. It is the fault of the perpetrators. Only they deserve to be punished. She needs to reclaim her most basic right in life: to live in safety.