“Are you on drugs? Are you drunk?”
“A girl looking like that? What’s he going to do? Pray for her?”
“Just a whore some guy fucked and threw away.”
“She goes from guy to guy, clearly not her first time.”
“You’re embarrassing yourself more. Don’t let anyone know.”

A recent video shows a woman on the streets of Beirut, traumatised and pleading for help after she was raped. Though the video is shocking in itself, it’s the reactions of those around her that leave the most haunting impression. Here is a victim of sexual assault, and instead of the support and immediate response necessary to the situation, the most quintessentially misogynist reactions are hurled at her. Even when a woman tries to console her, it is with a cautionary voice of ‘don’t embarrass yourself.’ These reactions aren’t necessarily ground-breaking news - to live in patriarchal Arab societies is to practically breathe the endless mantras of misogyny - but seeing them hurled, live, at a woman in need is particularly jarring.

A girl looking like that? What’s he going to do? Pray for her?

The video is a social experiment by Beirut-based feminist organisation, ABAAD-Resource Center for Gender Equality. Though the situation is staged by an actress and a few embedded crew members with hidden microphones, the reactions are all real. As part of their most recent campaign, Shame on Who?, the organisation shed light on the pervasive culture of victim blaming in cases of rape and sexual violence. It remains a pandemic that, at the first suggestion of violence against women, the reaction of a community is to justify, to find blame in her clothes or her presumed promiscuity, practically anything but the party actually responsible: the rapist.

An installation of torn and damaged wedding dresses by Lebanese artist Mireille Honein in collaboration with ABAAD in April 2017, ahead of the abolition of Article 522 of the Penal Code, which had allowed rapists to evade prosecution if they married their victims.

Nothing is one-dimensional. If violence is multidimensional, the solutions have to be multidimensional as well.

Saja Michael, Gender and Technical Advisor at ABAAD, explains how the actress and crew shot the video in three separate locations in Beirut, an intentional move to preempt reactions rooted in sectarianism. Depending on where the video was shot, the reactions in the video would have been blamed on whatever sect is historically associated with the area, instead of the deeply unjust cultural norms embedded in society. “Even though we were expecting bad reactions,” Michael comments, “they were worse than we thought. We didn’t expect the response to be this violent. But sometimes reality isn’t the easiest thing to face.” Ugly as it may be, this reality is what ABAAD sought to mirror in the launch of its campaign.  

ABAAD's social experiment shedding light on victim blaming, and the need to shift the burden of sexual violence onto the perpetrator.

“I would say that the women’s movement is the field that never rests. That never quits.” says Ghida Anani, founder and director of ABAAD, which has been active in Lebanon since 2012. “Despite the long years that we’ve been working to achieve these gains, there’s no sense of despair.” But often, feminist organisations fall into a trap of simplifying the fight, sacrificing nuance for simple, sympathetic soundbytes and easily digestible images. Addressing the symptoms of violent patriarchy - by setting up safe shelters for abused women, providing services and case management, for example - is important, but it’s only half the fight. ABAAD, by contrast, was established under the assumption that combating gender discrimination and violence requires a radical approach, to handle the very roots and cultural foundations in society that enable the problem to persist.

...the women’s movement is the field that never rests. That never quits.

 Anani explains that this is reflected in the very name ABAAD, which means ‘dimensions’ in Arabic. “Nothing is one-dimensional,” she says. “If violence is multidimensional, the solutions have to be multidimensional as well.” This has informed every aspect of ABAAD’s work. Many civil society organisations across the Arab world are forced, by realities of funding, legality, or politics, to choose either a grassroots or a top-down approach, either to work on-ground with communities or impact change from above. But ABAAD’s holistic approach enables it to do both. Today, they work on direct service delivery (through safe shelters and case management services), on policy development and capacity building, deconstructing patriarchal cultural legacies, working with media for ethical journalism, and with violent men through their Men Centres.

Activists at the 2018 Beirut Marathon taking a stand against sexual violence and rape culture.

Every year, ABAAD takes part in the 16 Days of Activism, an international campaign to challenge violence against women and girls that runs from November 25th, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, to December 10th, Human Rights Day. In the last iteration of the Beirut Marathon, which brings together a minimum of 30,000 people from all across Lebanon, women and activists decided not to run, but instead break the silence and face the social stigma against sexual violence, rape culture, and victim blaming. This was the third time ABAAD took over the marathon like this. In 2017, they had marched for greater prosecution of incestuous rape. In 2016, their campaign was a flash mob to raise awareness against Article 522, which allowed rapists to escape prosecution if they married the victim and which ABAAD successfully got repealed from the Lebanese penal code.

As a result of the campaign’s high-profile activations - which included the marathon, a collaboration between artists and rape victims to create graffiti murals of rapists in the streets of Beirut, and a collaborative play attended by Lebanese legislators - ABAAD achieved its second goal of the campaign: to help break the stigma attached to sexual violence. In 2019, it’s still necessary to force open the door to speak about what is still taboo, what was until recently meant only for hushed conversations behind closed doors. “Within the two or three weeks of the campaign,” says Anani, “over 100 women came forward with their experiences of rape and sexual assault. They came to us, some even with old cases, either to ask for assistance or simply to tell their stories.”

For the Shame On Who? campaign, graffiti artists worked with rape victims to create murals of their rapists. Motion-activated speakers played the voices of the victims telling their stories to passersby.

But more than simply shedding light on the issue, bringing feminist change to a patriarchal society is a long and arduous task of slow, steady, multifaceted progress. “It’s not just dropping the bomb and causing a commotion for the sake of it,” Michael jokes. Instead, every campaign that the organisation has launched over the past few years has addressed the issue of sexual violence from a different angle, mosaic parts forming a cohesive picture of systematic change. Their first campaign in 2016 - ‘A White Dress Doesn’t Cover the Rape’ - to repeal Article 522, was only the first part of the puzzle.

The law assumed that somehow marriage is a solution to rape. Like all a victim needs is a home and husband to keep her secret.

“The law assumed that somehow marriage is a solution to rape,” says Anani. “Like all a victim needs is a home and husband to keep her secret.” But the law, though dangerous and regressive in its own right, was only a single article in Lebanon’s legal system addressing sexual violence, much of which consists of laws inherited from the French mandate in the 1930s and 1940s, still enforced today. Because of their campaign on public opinion and their work with legislators, the article was repealed by Lebanese parliament in 2017. “On average, a legal reform campaign takes five years,” Michael reflects. “We were able to change it within two years.”

At sit-ins in front of parliament for their Undress 522 campaign in 2016, activists recreated ABAAD's visual campaign of wedding dresses made of gauze.

But patriarchy isn’t merely a beast, it’s a hydra; for every head you cut off, two more appear. It isn’t simply a matter of changing legislation, but struggling through the quagmire of cultural inheritance, a far more complex monster. “We need to address what we’ve inherited as a society,” says Anani. “The legislative text is important, and theoretically prevents crime, but rape still exists. We need what we call taghyeer al nesous wal nefous (to change both codes and consciousness).”

Within the two or three weeks of the campaign over 100 women came forward with their experiences of rape and sexual assault.

An essential part of this is ABAAD’s commitment to dealing with men, not as adversaries, but full partners in the fight. Fundamentally, this was rooted in a belief that if men are part of the problem - often, though not exclusively, as perpetrators - they cannot be alienated from the solution. But early on, what was an ideological commitment became an on-ground imperative.

Saja Michael at a sit-in, symbolising a rape victim in a cage, where the rapist should be.

“I remember one awareness session five years ago after we had first started,” Michael recounts. “A woman comes up to us and says ‘I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, I’ve really loved you guys, but what’s happening right now is you’ve told me what my rights are, but when I go home, I can’t do anything. Because at the end of the day, my husband decides when I can go out, when I have to come back, what I have to do, what I can’t. So why do you only talk to us?’ And that’s when it really hit us...Women are becoming more and more aware of their rights. But when the time comes for decision-making, they’re not involved in the process. So it was like the other side of the puzzle just clicked for us.”

The marketing campaign for the Men Centres focuses on internal, everyday struggles in men's lives and how the lack of healthy outlets hurts both their families and themselves.

In addition to their Masculinities program - based largely on culturally sensitive research that deconstruct Arab notions of masculinity, and community activations that engage men in different ways - ABAAD established its Men Centres in 2013. Offering voluntary, confidential, anonymous therapy for abusive men or men with violent tendencies, the three centres across Lebanon are the first of their kind in the region, where male mental health is still heavily stigmatised, to say the least. What the centres offer, Anani explains, is a kind of rehabilitation program for the perpetrator. The retributive aspect of legally prosecuting a rapist or abuser is, of course, crucial, but with no correctional or rehabilitative work, it’s a moot point. It can’t achieve the ultimate goal: reducing and eliminating sexual and gender based violence.

Activists at an Undress 522 demonstration.

At my own incredulity as to how men, of their own volition, would seek this kind of help, Michael points out the change that has taken place in public opinion over the past few years. “That concern was very valid five years ago,” says Michael. “The first year we started the centre, we had less than 10 men, and we thought of it as a huge accomplishment, which it was at the time. But now we have 140 men regularly coming to the centre per year.” Through campaigns, community leaders, referrals from other organisations, and internally through women receiving services from ABAAD, more men join the centres every year.

Offering voluntary, confidential, anonymous therapy for abusive men or men with violent tendencies, the three centres across Lebanon are the first of their kind in the region

It’s a trend among feminists today, especially millennials, to engage in the only-half-joking rhetoric of “all men are trash, men are pigs, they never learn,” attached to a choice string of expletives. Cathartic as that undoubtedly is at times, it’s not an effective roadmap for the change these feminists want to bring about. But there is also a more nuanced critique that feminists today often level, that they shouldn’t have to be trying to bring men into the conversation. Feminists aren’t babysitters, and men should come of their own volition and accord, without the need to be coaxed into allyship. To do so, some say, is often to fall into the trap of justifying, simplifying, and becoming complicit to patriarchy in the attempt to dismantle it.

Flyers for the Men Centre work on double meanings and cultural expressions to advertise services. Here, a pun on 'division and multiplication' advocates against corporal punishment and tells men to 'not hurt themselves, not hurt their families.'

“We’re not justifying violent behaviour,” Michael makes clear. “But at the end of the day, these men have been socialised in a particular way that’s brought them here. So we’re not trying to give them excuses, but understand the root cause of the problem...And what we’ve seen is that if they become aware of how they’ve been socialised and how it’s contributing to their violent behaviours, men are willing to change.”

As a result of their holistic approach to issues of gender, both Anani and Michael see a positive change in society. “A few years ago, if there was a story of sexual assault or domestic violence, it wouldn’t be covered by mainstream media,” Michael recalls. “But public discourse has become more sensitised to the issue. Because we’ve broken the silence, we’re breaking the taboo, it’s become a lot easier for us to engage directly with communities on issues that we couldn’t as easily before, like gender based violence.” 

Murals of rapists, as described by their victims, are now on the streets of Beirut, with the words '#ShameOnWho? Judge the rapist, not the victim."

As Anani has illustrated, there’s an unprecedented level of disclosure from victims. Because of this growing sense of trust, more and more women are coming forward with their stories. Government entities have also grown far more responsive to the women’s movement. Through their approach of inclusion and allyship, ABAAD has been able to impact change through stakeholders already in power, namely legislators. As a result of their ShameOnWho campaign, there is currently a group of parliamentarians working on the text to be proposed in Lebanon’s parliament, further revising how the Penal Code addresses issues of sexual violence. 

And, as it often is, this social change remains bittersweet. “Lebanon is still very behind,” says Anani. “There’s a kind of duality in society, a sense of openness that’s still shackled by social norms and the legacies of patriarchy. So on one hand, there’s a lot of success and change being embraced. But on the other, it’s still a long road to come...I think what we need is to look further than today. And if you do look at today, understand that progress is accumulative, it doesn’t happen all at once.” As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and - try as we might - patriarchy can’t be dismantled in one.

You can keep up with ABAAD through their website and on Facebook and Instagram.

All images courtesy of ABAAD.