Who is to blame? Street sexual harassment in Yemen

We need an unambiguous law which punish harassers and not the victims, says Ghaidaa Al-Absi.

Read this article in Arabic.

In my daily activism to fight street sexual harassment in Yemen I often find myself dealing with questions of blame. Sadly, this usually involves helping victims who are unfairly blamed for the acts of their perpetrators. Yet I also find myself asking who is to blame for the high percentage of sexual harassment in our country. According to a report released at a conference in Cairo in 1999, 90% of women are subjected to sexual harassment in Yemen, with evidence suggesting that this rises to 98% in Sana'a, the capital.

Since I wrote my initial article on street sexual harassment in Yemen on openDemocracy back in July, two questions in particular have been recurring in my mind. Is it enough to blame Yemeni law for not imposing stricter penalties for the crime of sexual harassment? Or, should we blame Yemeni society for dealing out impunity to the harassers and blame to the victims?

‘Offending Act in Public’: between legal understanding and erroneous application

One of the primary barriers to dealing with sexual harassment in Yemen is the inadequate legal framework. There is no specific law penalizing sexual harassment in Yemen, however, there is a law penalizing ‘Offending Acts in Public’. As outlined in article 273 of the Yemeni Penal Code, it criminalizes ‘any act which offends public morality or honor, exposes private areas or involves speaking indecently’. Article 274 of the same law stipulates the punishment of imprisonment not exceeding 6 months or a fine for anyone committing an offending act which can be seen or heard by others. The loophole in this Penal Code is that it does not give a clear definition of what is meant by offending public morality. This makes it subject to the understanding of the law enforcer which can sometimes lead to perverse consequences for women.

Often we read or hear that a woman has been arrested for offending public morality for simply going about her daily business, for example, for being outside with a man to whom she is not related. One woman was walking in the street with her fiancé when a police officer took them to the police station and accused them of committing an offending act in public. The woman had to call her father and ask him to come down to the station to prove to the police officers that the man was her fiancé. Far from using this law to stop harassers, in a cruel inversion of intent, some police officers thus clearly use article 273 to persecute women.

The other loophole in this legal protection is that even where the law is applied against perpetrators of sexual harassment, the fine does not exceed 1000 YR – which is equivalent to around 5 US dollars. As recently stressed by Abdulghani Al-wajeeh, a patrolling police commander in Yemen Times, "it is essential to re-word the law to include strict procedures because the 1,000 riyals fine doesn’t deter anyone and the risk of six-month imprisonment isn’t taken seriously." Lawyer Al-Sakhi adds, “the last time the law was amended was in 1994 … We need to modernize the law in order to go along with the current time.”

There have been several proposals to amend the Penal Code in recent years to make the crime of sexual harassment more explicit and also to raise awareness of its current misapplication. A seminar organized by Yemeni Women Union in 2009, for example, entitled ‘Offending Act in Public between erroneous application and legal understanding’ was entirely devoted to this issue. Yet in spite of these initiatives little action has been taken on the legal front; for solutions, many people continue to look to societal change.

“If she was a respectable she would not raise her voice”: the case for societal change

We have to keep in mind that the Yemeni context is very conservative: most people think that women are inferior and unlikely to have the need to go outdoors. Stereotypes also dictate that women need a guardian at all times and that, if left alone, they run the risk of sexual harassment. As long as the law remains inadequate and harassers continue to get away with impunity, society with also fail to respond.

A story was recently posted on our Safe Streets Facebook page by a man telling us about his experiences of conservative attitudes on a public bus in Sana'a. He said, "To combat sexual harassment in our country, we should not rely on our society because it gives a green light and protection for the harassers. I have seen with my own eyes a girl … on the bus and seen her hitting a man sitting behind her. It turned out later that he was harassing her, reaching out his fingers to touch her back under her seat. I considered her response bravery, but the passengers around me on the bus had a different view. I heard them say the following, “if she was a respectable she would not raise her voice”; “daughters with good manners do not hit people”; “if she does not want anyone to bother her, why she is exposing herself?" Why do people blame the victims, especially when the victim is a woman, and seek to justify the actions of harassers?

There are plenty of similar stories in the book It’s happening in the streets. This book, prepared and published by Safe Streets Campaign and funded by Tacticaltech (Tactical Technology Collective), is a collection of true stories of women who have faced sexual harassment in Yemen. One of the most shocking concerns the teenage daughter of a woman called Om Arafat: "Aunt Om Arafat is a widow and has three daughters, I know her because she used to come to my mother’s house to get monthly financial aid. One day when her daughter was on her way back home from school a 60 year old man from her neighborhood grabbed her breast and refused to let go. She managed to grab a stone and threw it at his face. He lost some teeth and had to go to hospital. People from the neighborhood asked Om Arafat to pay the medical treatment costs for the old man who harassed her daughter."

How can we rely on society to apportion justice when people punished this girl and her mother because she taught the harasser a lesson?

Sexual harassment has become a societal disaster in Yemen and a fundamental threat to the security of women and men because it is allowed to thrive in a society which lets the victims pay the price for being harassed while the harassers get off free. The societal change needed to combat sexual harassment in Yemen can only come in partnership with penal reform. We need an unambiguous law which punishes harassers and not the victims.

Read other articles in this series, 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence.