Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

Did we Arabs ever wonder how we would have dealt with our own Harvey Weinstein moment, if there was one? Have we ever spared a thought for sexual assault victims in the region? Human rights groups and legal correspondents say Arab women keep their nightmares hidden behind closed doors and high walls due to social stigma.

For Arabs, it is all about the honour of the woman and her family. Rape leads to social stigma that the woman should bear for the rest of her life. It’s baffling. The sexual assault itself scars the victims, and the trauma lasts a lifetime. Why should the victim, for no fault of her own, suffer at the hands of society too?

Sexual assaults never used to be a topic of discussion in conservative Arab societies. These days it’s less of a taboo, mainly due to the continuous efforts of women’s rights activists and campaigns that led to the change in laws to punish assailants. More people and forums have begun to highlight the ordeal of women, especially since the growing international attention and the #MeToo movement.

The case of the Swiss Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan certainly has echoes of the #MeToo movement. The prominent figure in Europe has been accused of rape by four women from different countries. Ramadan has been arrested in France and is facing investigation.

Sexual violence against women takes place in all parts of the world. It occurs in developed countries, in developing nations, among the upper crust, among the lower class, in the cities, in the villages, and in the universities. Even staff at international aid agencies and political leaders abuse their power to rape the very women they should be protecting.

Women of the world owe British actress Rose McGowan a debt of gratitude. Her allegation against Weinstein opened the Pandora’s Box in October. Thirteen women – many of them stars like Uma Thurman – have accused the Hollywood mogul of sexually assaulting them. Many other prominent men in the movie industry – Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Spacey, Woody Allen and James Franco, to name a few – have been reported to have sexually abused women, and in some cases young men too.

Sexual assaults in America are shocking since the country claims to be the defender of human rights and gender equality. If these assaults took place in a developing country, we would have seen women’s rights activists in the US lobbying to show support to the victims.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) figures based on data from over 80 countries, 1 in every 3 women (around 35 per cent) have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner or non-partner sexual violence. Figures in the Arab region too are depressing. According to the UN, 37 per cent of Arab women have experienced some form of violence. And they refuse to talk about it. More than six of every 10 women victims refrain from seeking support or protection. Part of the reason is that laws in many Arab countries tend to favour male rapists. Courts will acquit men if they marry their victims. That is an abomination. Mercifully, that has begun to change.

Tackling sexual assaults

The law was changed in Morocco after a victim committed suicide after being forced to marry her rapist in 2014. Lebanon made a similar move in 2017, and Jordan too amended an article in its penal code that was lenient towards male relatives if they he committed “honour killing” in a fit of fury. (Honour killing is the macabre practice of killing women who are deemed to have had illicit relations. Even rape victims are not spared).

Women’s rights, gender equality, pay parity: We are still talking about it. And we are in the 21st century. What happened to all the international conferences? Looks like they didn’t do any good. The high number of sexual assaults is evidence enough.

How do we fight violence against women? Perhaps one way is to speak about it. Women should voice their anger, despair and pain. They should call out the perpetrators. Clamour for justice. Do not rest till the attackers are punished.

The Arab world has much to learn in tackling sexual assaults. Rape must never remain an ugly secret. Silence only makes the attackers bolder. And such men will continue to prey on more unsuspecting women. These evil men have to be stopped. Every sexual assault should spur action to name and shame the assailant and bring him to justice. Forums and activists should help the victims overcome the trauma so that they can rebuild their lives and live with dignity.

Women are often seen as sexual objects. This perception has to change. In school, we are told “women are half the society”. If we value women, we have to change our outlook towards them. Only then will they be able to claim their rightful place in society. The bigger challenge is to prevent sexual assaults. And that should begin at home, long before boys become men. Boys watch and learn how their fathers treat their mothers and other women. So, fathers should set an example by treating women with respect. Women deserve it.