Rates of sexual harassment continue to rise in the Middle East, feasibly linked to culture-enforced lack of sex education, experts say.
In an interview with Joan Abdalla, a Counselor and Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the American University in Dubai, she has revealed that the absence of awareness could be a contributing factor to how common sexual harassment is becoming, especially when it comes to online harassment.
The phenomenon of sexual harassment is often termed rape culture. According to Dr. Pamela Chrabieh, an Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and a colleague of Dr. Abdallah at AUD, rape culture is not a new phenomenon and is not found in one particular culture. “It is,” she said, “a combination of mindsets, beliefs, theories and practices in which rape is pervasive and normalized, such as in prisons, in conflict zones – in war zones, rape is used as a psychological warfare – but also in contexts where inequality at different levels exist.”
Considering country size, when it comes to Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and the UAE, the approximate ratio is 12:5:2:1:1, respectively. When it comes to illiteracy, the percentage rates of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and the UAE are 26.1:21.5:15.9:4.1:10, respectively.
“Furthermore,” added Dr. Chrabieh, “according to the Euro Mediterranean Human Rights Network, more than 6000 women have been raped since the start of the war in Syria. In Egypt, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights and other local/international organizations suggest that the number of rape cases is over 200 000 every year.” The size of the country and literacy rate can clearly bee seen in play in these statistics. Not to mention, the populations of each of these country vary greatly in number.
Regarding the case of UAE, there are 2 documents showing the number of police-recorded offenses from 2003 till 2010 at the national level, revealed Dr. Chrabieh. According to these documents, the number of reports has increased from 44 per year to 72 per year. “However,” she stated in an interview by email, “the recorded offenses do not reveal the exact number of rapes which is probably higher,” which is a view that is shared by Ms. Amina Bin Hammad, a counselor at the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children.
“Regarding sexual abuse, no real numbers have been announced due to cultural reasons, because of the stigma towards sexual abuse,” Ms. Bin Hammad said over the phone, Sunday afternoon. “Sexual abuse and violence are topics that few people like to hear and talk about, but it happens and does matter, and we have to stress this particular issue so as to bring awareness to the people.”
The Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, established in July of 2007, “is the first licensed non-profit shelter in the UAE for women and children victims of domestic violence, child abuse, and human trafficking,” as is stated on their website DFWAC.ae.
Ms. Hammad: All of the foundation is working to raise awareness in community. “Starting from the helpline, 800111, DFWAC offers Dubai and UAE 24-hour online services. Anyone can call to receive information about services, request emergency assistance or referral, or even to learn more about the issues we tackle such as violence against women.”
Since 2007, DFWAC has helped a large number of women and children seeking refuge from abusive conditions.
DFWAC’s service to the community is the exact type of education Dr. Abdallah said is an important factor of all efforts to reduce the prevalence of rape culture. “We do not have sex education in schools, and I think that we need to start talking that up a little, because that can prevent a lot of [harassment] from happening.” She added, “I think that education is the key to pretty much everything, but with education, I think it has to reach at a very young age. I think that we tend to focus on older people, and a lot of kids experience it to, and particularly now with the Internet.”
Dr. Chrabieh and Ms. Bin Hammad stated the media as being a main instigator and sustainer of rape culture. The former stressed the following: “there are many causes for a rape culture to exist and sustain: objectification of women using media and normalizing rape/excusing rape by societies’ media, popular culture and political figures; use of misogynistic language and jokes, [as well as the] glamorization of sexual violence with tolerance of sexual harassment.”
Ms. Bin Hammad made a simpler statement, yet no less poignant, in a resigned tone. “Media has influence over all aspects our lives. It’s the reality [that we live in].”
Even though rape culture is a global phenomenon, it seems to be worse in the Middle East, including the UAE, due to culture-influenced reticence to discuss the subject.
“Anything that has to deal with social-slash-cultural issues that kind of go beyond the norm of what is acceptable, people don’t talk about it a lot,” disclosed Dr. Abdallah. “I think there’s this stigma, sad to say, but people go right to ‘what did you do to contribute to it,’ and there’s a blame factor [towards the victim].”
However, Dr. Abdallah revealed that there is hope after all, despite the rising rate of reports of sexual harassment. “It’s getting better, I have to tell you,” she said, sounding positive, “particularly in the Gulf area. Now we do see agencies that handle this, we see the police handling it, we see them handling it a lot more professionally. [The] police are getting trained in this field, so it has gotten better, probably in the last 5 years.”
The agencies, which Dr. Abdallah mentioned, include DFWAC, as Ms. Bin Hammad was only happy to confirm. She emphasized that sexual harassment, as well as rape culture, are two of the main targets of the foundation, as well as community awareness.
“Besides the DFWAC helpline, we do also campaigns for children to teach them how to protect themselves from sexual abuse, similarly for adults, and there are many conferences and seminars every year that have different topics related to rape culture being discussed by DFWAC all across the UAE.”