There is a pronounced lack of statistics on sexual harassment in the Gaza Strip, a very conservative society living a siege imposed by the occupation for more than a decade. But withholding statistics or not even collecting them for fear of social censure gives harassers a license to continue with their bad behavior unchecked.
This taboo was broken by three women who decided to investigate harassment in Gaza and launched the campaign #MeTooGaza.
In an interview with Raseef22, one of the campaign's founders, who requested anonymity, said that "the phenomenon of harassment, and the lack of discussion about it and the fear of it" are some of the reasons for launching the campaign’s Twitter presence last March.
"Gazan girls are subjected to harassment and assault on a daily basis, and we have to reveal the truth,” the co-founder added.
The campaign aims to offer solidarity with victims who are often condemned and held responsible for the harassment rather than being supported.
“Women are always blamed for harassment because of what they wear and for going out at night or frequenting certain places, when actually the blame should be directed at the harasser and the society that empowers him,” said one campaign organizer.
In addition to Twitter, the three women created an account on the website “Sarahah” (“straight talk”) in order to document stories of harassment, including one sent in by a young man. The site allows people to talk about incidents of harassment without revealing the victim's real name, making it easier for them to talk about their experiences, even though the intent of the original #metoo movement was to expose the harassers without fear of reprisals from society.
"Whoever denies the existence of harassment in Gaza lives in the la la land and has not gone out for himself to see the reality".
Others shared their stories on other platforms, like Palestinian activist Tamam Abu Salama who tweeted that she had been harassed by a school bus driver for a year. She pointed out that she did not know what harassment or physical abuse was, believing that he was “playing with her.” She said that it was necessary to change the educational system to allow girls to talk openly without fear of consequences.
Despite the wide engagement that the organizations of the campaign did not expect, there are those who oppose it, claiming that there is no real incidence of harassment in Gaza.
“Whoever denies the existence of harassment in Gaza lives in the la la land and has not gone out for himself to see the reality, and our response is the messages that we receive and publish on our account,” the organisers say, adding that they themselves were also harassed and they shared their stories anonymously on the site “to unburden ourselves and prove that it wasn’t our fault.”
The worst stories that they receive are those of women who have been harassed by their fathers or brothers, which they say “means there is no escape.”
The strongest motivation for them to continue is their belief in feminism and equality between the sexes and their rejection of “any constraints imposed on women,” and they are considering expanding the campaign with the help with feminist organizations.
The honor of nations.. the hymen
One of the supporters of the campaign, Mohamed Omar, a Gazan resident of Germany who has lived there for a year and a half now, says that the first way to confront a problem is to recognize its existence, "just like a mental illness."
He pointed out that the vast majority of those who interact with the campaign are university students, which means that they are "well aware of this disease and its existence," as he described it.
He said that the Gazan community denies the existence of the phenomenon of harassment because it is "a conservative Muslim society that does not believe that nations advance through scientific and economic progress and higher standards of living and better public health, but rather by protecting women’s hymens.”
Omar added that the community in Gaza presents itself as an icon of resistance against the Israeli occupation state, a self-image that is at odds with the reality of sexual harassment.
"How can a hero be portrayed as the harasser or as a victim of harassment?” he said.
"How can a hero be portrayed as the harasser or as a victim of harassment?”
Omar said he believes that the phenomenon of harassment exists in conservative societies much more so than progressive ones for many reasons, the most important of which is religion, which he claimed is often the main source of culture, habits and customs in such societies.
"Religion prohibits mixing, views women as a way to entertain men, and prohibits sexual relations between unmarried couples, which is a key cause of the many disasters experienced by our societies, including the phenomenon of sexual harassment,” he said.
Conservative society suffers more than others
Duaa al-Hesham, a young woman from Gaza and a graduate of laboratory medicine, agreed that harassment rates in "so-called conservative societies" outweigh those of “more progressive societies.”
But she said the reason for that is the lack of sex education, which increases the feeling of sexual repression in young men, leading them to abuse girls.
"There is no girl in Gaza who has not been harassed verbally,” she said. “This happens constantly, whereas physical harassment happens but talk of it is suppressed.
She added: “Girls may be physically harassed in the street, but they are often ashamed and walk away. They seldom stand and scream in the face of the harasser.”
Al-Hesham said that based on what she had heard, sexual harassment is more common among relatives, but girls “become ashamed and stay silent,” adding that many were sexually assaulted during childhood.
Though she supports the MeToo Gaza campaign, she does not believe it should be conducted anonymously, but should be run openly by a serious feminist organization. Nevertheless, she understands the organizers’ choice to stay anonymous for fear of legal repercussions and social censure.
“We’ve been harassed without exposing who we are so what will happen if we revealed our identities?”
One of the founders said: “We’ve been harassed without exposing who we are so what will happen if we revealed our identities?”
Gazan activist and dentist Ahmad Abu Raya, who supports the campaign, said that a lot of young men who have been engaging with it “initially did not believe that harassment was going on.”
He said that the lack of acceptance of the campaign is due to "a lot of stories of harassment being about harassment by family members and which if revealed could create a scandal," adding that conservative communities have now become closed communities to hide “the sickness within.”