Helem and Sexual Harassment

14 Sep

.لقراءة هذا المقال بالعربي إضغط(ي) هنا.

The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous.

I’d like to share my experiences within Helem, an organization which I have supported since its inception. I defended the idea of its formation within the social and political movement that I was active in at the time, in the face of a great deal of defensiveness and objection around putting issues of homosexuality and sexual liberation on its agenda. I was ecstatic when Helem was finally formed, being the first organization in Lebanon and the Arab world to deal with sexuality. I was hopeful that personal and sexual freedoms would finally be on the radar of civil society, and as a woman in particular the fight for gender justice is extremely important to me.

I’d like to speak about my experience as a woman inside this organization and my relationship with its members and leaders. A strange feeling crept up on me as I got to know many members better, when I discovered that the way they greet women is not through a handshake, but through grabbing her breasts. I felt very uncomfortable every time someone would touch me without my permission. In the beginning, I thought that maybe this was normal, I figured that in the minds of these men their lack of sexual interest in me gave them the “right” to touch me. But who said that a lack of sexual desire towards my body would make it public property?? This idea in particular, that women’s bodies are public and revolve around men’s sexuality and desire, forms the basis of the patriarchal system that discriminates against me as a woman and makes me pay very dearly for my non-normative personal choices. 

Among the other things that reproduce patriarchal structures among many members of Helem is the image they have of femininity, the same image in the mainstream social imagination: superficial, gossipy, catty, enemies with other women and obsessed with the world of fashion and beauty with the goal of attracting men. I have always fought against this in my personal life, and I’ve always had my own standards of beauty and my own non-normative version of femininity. Women who fall outside social norms of beauty and femininity are considered by the men of Helem to be “abnormal”, “angry lesbians”, “ugly”, “dirty” and “smelly”. I have personally witnesses many instances of women being mocked in Helem for the way they look and dress, and for their gender expression and the way they express themselves, whether it is masculine or feminine.

This general anti-woman atmosphere created the perfect breeding environment for sexual harassment. One Helem member sexually harassed me repeatedly, ignoring my constant objections to his unwelcome touches every time. Finally, during a party one evening, this person even rubbed his penis against my behind. I reacted spontaneously and violently as I felt this was the only way for him to stop. In another instance in one of Helem’s meetings, one member came up to me and asked to see my breasts after I gave a presentation he enjoyed, as if commending me for my views entailed giving me the “prize” of displaying my breasts.

All of this verbal and physical harassment has bothered me and many other women in Helem. There was never any genuine attempt to solve the problem, and so many women ended up leaving the organization completely. The lack of serious engagement was always tied to a patriarchal structure within the organization that absolves those who discriminate and harass. This structure becomes clear in the reactions that inevitably follow any complaint: blaming the victim, relegating the problem to a just a few bad apples, and mocking the women, among other oppressive strategies designed to silence anyone who dares to speak out. I think today is finally the time for these violations against women’s bodies to stop. I am speaking out now so that this doesn’t happen again to other women in the future.

2 Responses to “Helem and Sexual Harassment”

  1. gay from Iraq September 16, 2012 at 8:58 am #

    well, I think those harassment happened everywhere , whenever there is men there is harassment. these things give a very bad idea and reputation to our dear Helem , which established to fight for human right , liberties and the most important sexual liberties , it is established to protect us from these acts not to be a place where this disgusting things happened , please Helem leaders if these things are true , stop them!!!

  2. layale September 17, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    this is really quite shocking to me. i have followed helems activities nor for 5 or 6 years and have always admired them but at the same time i always wondered why meem split off and assumed it was because their objectives were different. i am shocked that helem wouldnt take such things seriously. a queer activist space should be the last place where women are exposed to sexism . it is disappointing and disgraceful that a left activist group would not take issues of gender oppression seriously and take action to rectify this issue. a queer liberation struggle is not as strong without women.

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