Dubai:Sexual harassment at the workplace is not uncommon in the UAE, but it is rarely reported, according to psychologists and legal experts.
The revelation comes in the wake of fresh allegations being made globally as part of the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment.
Since allegations of serial predation were first made against movie magnate Harvey Weinstein in the US in October 2017, 425 prominent personalities have reportedly been accused of sexual misconduct in that country alone.
The charges range from lewd comments and abuse of power to assault and rape. The campaign has prompted victims in India and Europe also to speak up.
In the UAE, sexual harassment, particularly verbal intimidation and abuse, is common, said Dr Fabian Saarloos, clinical and health psychologist at the German Neuroscience Centre in Dubai.
“But women who are relatively open to disclose instances during therapy, are unable to address the issue at work or with others, usually out of shame, fear or the belief that it’s they who triggered the inappropriate advances. Men tend to be ashamed, insecure or dismissive about it and rarely bring up the matter. People don’t want to be seen as victims or draw attention by reporting sexual harassment,” said Dr Saarloos.
Dr Roghy McCarthy, clinical psychologist at the Counselling & Development Clinic, Dubai, said she has dealt with cases where women have preferred not to report the matter and instead given up their jobs because they were unable to deal with a bully at work.
“In responsible positions and respected professionals otherwise, the bullies’ harassment was either covert or overt like asking the women to stay back long hours, making gestures or asking them to come along on business trips.”
Legal experts said very few victims actually get down to making a complaint with the HR, let alone the police, and fewer still take it to the courts.
This could be because of the victim’s ignorance about her rights on how to deal with sexual harassment. Victims also fear retaliation by the offender, loss of job, humiliation by colleagues and repercussions on the home front.
He said the common forms of harassment against women include inappropriate staring, touching (patting, brushing up against the target), passing comments about appearance or body, sending obscene text messages that include pictures, videos or pornographic material and soliciting sexual favours.
He said men can be victims too.
“Our most recent cases include that of a woman who was getting lewd mails from a colleague. She reported the matter to her company’s HR. An inquiry followed and the offender was sacked. Another case involved a woman who received a WhatsApp message from a colleague suggesting they have an affair. The case was settled before it went to the court, with the offender promising to stay away from her after paying a monetary compensation.”
But should things go the court, what recourse do victims have under the UAE law?
Hegazy said, “In the UAE, there is no special law or regulation that deals with sexual harassment per se. The UAE Penal Code, however, has some provisions dealing with scandalous and disgraceful acts. Article 358 penalises an offender who openly commits an indecent and disgraceful act by confinement for a period of at least six months.
“Article 359 provides that any person who obstructs a female in such a manner as to violate her prudence by word or deed on a public road or at a frequented place shall be punished by confinement for a period not exceeding one year and a fine not exceeding Dh10,000.
“If a criminal judgement is rendered against the expat, it would include a jail term followed by deportation.”
He said, in addition, based on Article 120 of the UAE Labour Law, an employer has the right to terminate the service of an employee who is penalised by a criminal judgement.
Elaborating on Article 359, Tina Thapar of Al Midfa Associates Advocates & Legal Consultants said, “The penalty is applicable even in cases where a male disguised in female apparel enters a place reserved for men or where entry is forbidden at the time.”
She said, “Complaints against sexual harassment can be directly made to the police station which investigates the matters and refers it to public prosecution. It can be proven with the help of victim statements, witnesses and records of surveillance cameras.”
Hegazy said, “A victim of sexual harassment may report the offence to the company’s HR to seek advice or file the complaint directly to the police station. Every HR department must conduct an orientation session for its new employees regarding the subject, the victims’ rights and responsibilities and corresponding penalties.”
How sexual harassment can affect a victim
Sexual harassment breaks down a person’s sense of safety and security, especially if it happens in an environment or relationship considered “safe”.
Not only does the trust in the other/environment break down, people also lose self-confidence.
He said victims will show some fight-or-flight behaviours, which may involve avoidance or startle reactions. “It may also lead to freeze-reactions and panic attacks. Helplessness, sadness and guilt/shame about what happened, anger towards the perpetrator and self, and anxiety about the future characterise post-traumatic reactions.”
Dr Sarloos said people also fear the occupational and social consequences of the trauma and isolate themselves. Sleeping problems and nightmares may lead to people feeling exhausted during the day. Relationships with others may also change.
“The longer people suppress or shy away from addressing the trauma, the more likely it is to affect overall functioning, which may lead to other psychological problems such as depression or burnout, or occupational/social problems such as making mistakes or losing one’s job. In some cases, it could also lead to cardiovascular problems.”
What help can one expect from a psychologist?
Dr Sarloos said psychologists provide various forms of psychotherapy, depending on the victim’s individual characteristics, needs, state of trauma and preferences. “Psychotherapy focuses on breaking avoidance and addressing the trauma, installing rational and functional interpretations to the trauma in order for the brain to re-process the event, but with a more adaptive perspective.”
He said cognitive behaviour therapy is the most effective as it focuses on changing the thoughts underlying the traumatic experience. “Eye-Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing is another form of therapy, in which the brain is stimulated in such a way that emotions can be reprocessed in a more functional memory that can be stored long-term.”
Psychiatrists also prescribe anti-depressants or anti-anxiolytics if necessary, he added.
What residents think of the global #MeToo campaign
The movement has given women the confidence to speak up against harassment of any kind and we have started seeing results of that as well. However, it should not be misused. Also, I believe there are men out there who are victims and they need a platform too.
The campaign started out with good intentions but has gotten carried away. It is now being used for all sorts of causes and has lost the purpose of helping the truly abused to come forward. In some situations, it has become a joke and a tool for malicious vengeance.
The campaign is a good thing, but away from the social media frenzy, there needs to be a proper mechanism for complaints to be processed, investigated and acted upon. If someone speaks up, there should be a defined way to take things forward.
What should you do if you are sexually harassed?
- Report offence to your company’s HR, provide evidence.
- File complaint in the nearest police station, with evidence.
- Consider therapy with a psychologist.