American University of Beirut

Combatting Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: A Daily Struggle

​​​​​​​​​KIP Hiwar 2: Discussion on anti-sexual harassment protections in Arab MENA workplaces

“Never is the time more right than in times of struggle, challenge and reconstruction to raise the voices for inclusive systems and to fight against gender based violence," says Dr. Charlotte Karam, Associate Professor and Founding Director of Center of Inclusive Business and Leadership (CIBL)  for Women, at the Olayan School of Business, American University of Beirut.  

Under the title “#Mesh_Basitai" – (It is Not Okay), CIBL for Women organized its second KIP Hiwar episode, on September 17, with feminist activists and legal experts from Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon to discuss Anti-sexual Harassment Protections in Arab MENA Workplaces. With more than 180 registrants from 22 different countries across the world. The vibrant session focused around the different protection mechanisms regional employers can put in place and also highlighted some of the success stories of employers protecting against sexual harassment. 

Gender-based violence and sexual harassment in the workplace continue to challenge women's recruitment, retention, and promotion in economies across the region. This second KIP Hiwar unpacked some of these challenges and engaged in a discussion with our regional experts who have been leading the way in their countries, each in her own way.

Whilst sexual harassment has long been on the agenda of women and feminist organizations across the region, as well as professional groups, trailblazing private sector employers, and individual activists, the struggle for workspaces free from gender-based violence continues.

Anti-SH Frameworks in the Arab MENA: Laws Alone are not Enough ​

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According to a study done by the Arab Barometer in 2019, sexual harassment in public spaces is the most common in Egypt 44% and Sudan 38% compared to 20% in Libya and 15% in Tunisia.

While Egypt criminalizes sexual harassment in public in its Penal Code, the Labor Law lacks alignment and does not criminalize it in the workplace. “What we need is internal policies and procedures inside the workplaces, and to examine the strategies, penal code and labor law, in order to figure what is needed from a holistic approach", says Mozn Hasan, Founder and Executive Director of Nazra for Feminist Studies. Speaking about the Tunisian context, Bochra Bel Haj Hmida Attorney at the Court of Cassation,  notes that national legislation also does not specifically mention criminalizing sexual harassment in the workplace, however the law does discuss “discrimination" particularly if perpetrated by the employer. Discrimination law has been used in some countries (e.g., the United States of America) as a mechanism to protect against sexual harassment and to hold employers and perpetrators accountable. Furthermore, Hmida notes that  “Having a law is not enough, but procedures and regulations are what we need in order to activate the law and raise awareness". The struggle must there for be two-fold, to push for a workplace culture change free of gender-based violence, while also mobilizing for  the implementation of  clear anti-sexual harassment legal frameworks at the national level.

Where no concrete laws exist, as in the case of Lebanon, mobilizing employers is more challenging. A part of this challenge stems from the fact that “The term sexual harassment does not exist in any legal framework in Lebanon," as explained by Youmna Makhlouf, Appeals Lawyer and a Member of the Legal Agenda. Makhlouf explained how difficult it is to provide evidence substantiating a of sexual harassment complaint, specifically when there is an  absence of witnesses. The burden of proof is on the victim and Legislators do not take into account the obligation of employers to ensure  a healthy, gender-equitable work environment in Lebanon.

Makhlouf notes that although Article 26 of the Labor Law “prohibits discrimination between males and females" in the workplace, this article has never been used in cases or brought forward in the courts. ​

Challenges in Implementing Sexual Harassment Protections: The Need for More Dialogue 

In addition to the difficulty of providing evidence of harassment, Makhlouf also says that the individuals who decide to bring the case to court are often faced with numerous challenges. She notes that “the victims become accused in the courts ​is a stigma and blame that they often have to burden. Taking into consideration the social norms and the differences in defining sexual harassment, Hmida adds that some women refuse to report on sexual harassment incidents, due to fear of losing their job as well as to the  pressure from their family not to report. It was also noted that  women are often ignored when they raise a complaint or are even questioned in disbelief by their employers. Hmida states that “around 90% of women who reported sexual harassment also reported lack in response from their employers”.  Similarly, Hassan highlights that in Egypt, reports about sexual harassment are not dealt with “as crimes where the harasser must be punished”, but rather the women are made to carry so much of the burden says Hassan. Women have to prove everything on their own which is very hard. Recently, at the American University in Cairo many women spoke out against a male students on campus which triggered open dialogues and heated debates in the media and among activist circles. “We always ask women to always talk and speak up, it is their right to do so, we all need to know,” Hassan insists.  ​

Success Stories and Regional Mobilization: The Struggle Beyond the Law 

Enacting a legal framework is a step in the right direction and much needed in many parts of the region, but it is not an end goal in and of itself. The law is a tool to change the conversation around sexual harassment, but as importantly, the daily cultural practices in the workplace also need to change. In Tunisia, there are a few private sector companies, in the telecom and banking sectors, that have created policies to guarantee gender equality. Such policies can help to create  more healthy workplace environments, which in turn helps to gradually dissipate different forms of discrimination, and subsequently different instance of harassment. In Lebanon, universities are being responsible and creating policies that protect against sexual harassment. For example, the American University of Beirut has adopted the “Sexual Harassment Policy" as a framework aiming “to promote a safe, respectful and ethical work and academic environment in which members of the AUB community are free from any kind of sexual harassment".

“People shouldn't wait for a disaster to happen and then act accordingly, women bodies are not the fuel", Hassan says. She continues that what is happening now at the American University of Cairo is great and much needed because this will lead to changing policies, implementing anti-sexual harassment mechanisms,  and ultimately holding responsible parties accountable. In this way, we see that regulations, whether policies or laws, are important as a conduit to foster a better mentality and  environment.

Hassan also made reference to the global feminist movement, and the pathways and instances of cooperation between activists in the movement. She sees these relationships as essential  to help create model standard and norms that others can follow. Makhlouf, added that such movements are of utmost importance as they fight for greater equality in the 'right to work'   and other important human rights issues. According the Makhlouf these kinds of issues are  crucial and should be tackled together on a regional level, as they are affecting us all. Indeed, the legal fight needs to be championed at the regional level, insisting it should be one fight for us all. Makhlouf points out that each individual across the region deserves and has the right to be protected. She asserts that “Women in the workplace should fight for this themselves. When women go to their workplace, they are not going to a warzone, they should not remain scared", but rather join the efforts to establish safer workplace for all.

For the individuals and the team at CIBL for Women, we too try to play our part through different activities such as the KIP Hiwar, research, and the dissemination of the related findings. The CIBL for Women team are also continuously engaged with employers and decision makers to help push forward anti-sexual harassment protections at the organizational and national levels. Currently, and over the last 5 years we have been working with different entities to push for anti-sexual harassment legislation. For example, most recently with have partnered with the National Commission For Lebanese Women (NCLW) to prepare a draft law.   Despite the repeated changes in government, and the tragedies of economic collapse, COVID-19 and the Beirut Blast, we continue our mission forward and continue in coordination with the Commission and other civil society actors, INGOS, businesses and economic stakeholders. Building on over a decade of efforts by feminist activists, lawyers advocates, jurists, and professional organizations, and employers, we continue on in order to pass protections against sexual harassment in Lebanon. CIBL for Women's aim is to serve as a catalyst to create a regional forum to discuss, debate and share the experiences relating to establishing anti-sexual harassment laws across the region.

Moderated by May Ghanem, Research Associate at CIBL, and lead by the discussant Dr. Brigitte Khoury, Associate Professor and clinical psychologist at the Psychiatry Department at the Faculty of Medicine, AUB, the “Anti-Sexual Harassment Protections in Workplaces Across the ARAB MENA" webinar was the second episode ​of the Knowledge is Power (KIP) HIWAR series of conversations that aim at advancing inclusive business systems and workplaces in the region.

For more information and about us please contact the Center for Inclusive Business and Leadership (CIBL) for Women at

​i #Mesh_Basita underscores how frequently and daily women are told that sexual harassment is not a big deal. The struggle to combat sexual harassment is daily for women across the region.​

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