Meet Salwa, Lebanon's anti-sexual harassment mascot

Women face widespread verbal and physical abuse in parts of the Arab world. Now, some are hitting back.

April 8, 2010 22:28

Salwa311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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When young Salwa is notified by her boss about a coming promotion, she can’t be happier. She hurries into the boss’s office – but after the door is shut, the big man suddenly makes a move on her, implying that she should “pay” for her promotion. Red with anger, Salwa punches him hard and runs away. “Fight sexual harassment,” reads the message at the end of the clip.

Salwa is native Lebanese, and although she is only a few weeks old, she has already succeeded in gaining popularity among the local youth. This free-spirited woman who is not afraid to speak her mind was chosen as the mascot for the Anti-Harassment Campaign launched by the Lebanese League of Independent Activists (IndyACT) on March 30.

The campaign is based on the comic Salwa Adventures, which will be publicized on TV, in newspapers and via social networks. There will also be awareness workshops, and “Salwa bags” – kits with information brochures on methods to deal with sexual harassment – will be distributed all around the country to women and children.

“Salwa is an average Lebanese woman who is sick of the sexual harassment that has become part of her daily life and decided to take matters into her own hands. Her superpower lies in her bag,” her Facebook page says.

In many Arab and Islamic countries, sexual harassment legislation is nearly nonexistent. Filing a complaint against a perpetrator can be both unpleasant and even risky for a woman, as she might have to deal with unwanted publicity and be subjected to harsh criticism in her society.

“Our campaign ‘Adventures of Salwa’ comes at a time when young women cannot find any legal or social deterrent for sexual harassment in all its forms in any public place,” said Leen Hashem, the campaign’s coordinator in IndyACT. “It is no longer acceptable for our streets to become a place where we are unable to walk, and being silent about such practices shows our weakness, so Salwa will speak.”

Lately many Lebanese women have been reporting a sharp increase in cases of verbal and physical abuse on the streets of Beirut – a city where women generally enjoy more freedoms than in other Arab capitals. Some complain about vulgarity and lewd looks, while others recall being chased by cars and verbally abused by fellow drivers while moving slowly in endless Beirut traffic jams. There are reports of stalkers, pushers and grabbers as well.

“This is a daily nuisance for women here. Ask any female aged 15-35 what her experiences with Lebanese taxi drivers are, and you will get the same reaction: utter disgust,” asserts a blogger called “Beirut beauty.”

“Speaking from personal experience, I, too, was subjected to this when I was at the mere age of 17,” the blogger recalls. “To cut the horrible ordeal short, the taxi driver, whom I actually paid to take me home after school, began masturbating and screaming, ‘I’m horny!’”

Some women in Lebanon try to console themselves with the notion that the situation is not unique to Beirut, but typical of many Arab capitals. In Cairo, for instance, the situation has become so acute that the religious establishment has had to intervene. Egyptian women and foreign tourists report that young men following women in groups grabbing them and shouting out vulgarities has become almost a behavioral norm.

The Lonely Planet travel guide series has a paragraph dedicated to this issue in its “Egypt” and “Cairo” guides, advising women to dress modestly, especially when traveling alone. However, Egyptian women say that even the muhaggabat – girls and women who cover their hair and upper torso with an Islamic head-scarf – get the same treatment.

Following a massive outcry by Egyptian women subjected to daily humiliation and physical attacks on the streets, Egypt’s Ministry of Endowments, the government division responsible for the administration of mosques, decided to distribute an informational booklet about sexual harassment to mosques across the country. “Sexual Harassment: Causes and Solutions” went out to 50,000 imams nationwide in summer of 2009 so they would address the issue during Friday prayers and sermons.

However, in the absence of clearly defined laws against sexual harassment, virtually no perpetrators are convicted and no complaints get serious attention from the prosecution.

Sociologists consider the widespread sexual harassment to be part of a broader societal problem.

“The costs of marriage are enormous, while many men are unemployed and unable to reach the necessary level to start a family,” according to a statement by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights. “Consequently the marital age goes up all the time, and the young people are frustrated.”

Many women’s groups in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and other countries highlight the importance of such laws in their countries, but admit that it’s not just a question of laws, it’s about changing the social norms.

Meanwhile, other women who are tired of harassment come up with methods to battle the phenomenon. Taxis run by women drivers and managers have been available in Beirut and Cairo for several years now, enjoying huge popularity among local women. Also, Lebanese feminist group The Feminist Collective recently announced plans to launch a ride-sharing service, giving free rides to women waiting for taxis in the street, in a bid to “combat harassment in taxis.”

“We are an organized auto-stop network of women, for women, in Lebanon,” reads a description of the initiative on the group’s Facebook page. “This network comes as a shout-out against harassment, which has become part of every woman’s daily life in Lebanon. It aims to create a sense of solidarity among women and to combat harassment in taxis by taking matters into our own hands.”

This preemptive measure might not change the attitudes in Lebanese society, but at least for the time being, while the battle to pass related bills and raise awareness on this subject continues, women might feel a bit more relaxed hurrying to work or coming back late at night from a party.

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