Harassment, Misconceptions and the Media|
With reference to Yolanda Zaptia’s article “Harassment May have Economic Consequences”(1) (The Tripoli Post – 14 Sept. 2008) and as it was published more than a month ago, I am encouraged to express my opinion on the subject by the fact that the date of Yolanda's last comment in the article appears to be in the future (10 Dec. 2008)!
It had to take a brave woman not of Libyan origin to tackle head-on the problem of harassment of women in Libya. This form of pestering is inflicted every day in the streets by men all over the country on both local and foreign women. I heard this from many women whom I had the chance of either talking to directly or communicated with by email in response to my comments on the issue of “Libyan women and Hijab” which were published recently on the Middle East Youth website(2). They unanimously sighted this unique issue of harassment as the reason for wearing the hijab in order to protect their dignity and guard their honour from the abusive and ill mannered men.
Misconceptions can only be corrected if they are allowed to be addressed and discussed in full public view, with full respect for each other’s views and without fear or intimidation. In reply to Mrs. S. Masoud El-Muelife who posted a comment on the article, there is a misconception by many, educated and non-educated alike, that the frequent reporting of incidents of violence and crime in the news media in Britain (and the west) is a reflection of a state of raging bloodshed and brutality rampant and predominant in these societies! If this is true, neither the tens of millions of tourists who flock each year to visit these countries nor the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who risk their lives and abandon their “crime-free” countries to go and live there would be encouraged to do so.
It is important to compare like with like when it comes to showing how safe one can be on his own (especially for a woman) in a particular place at a particular time. In a big city like Tripoli or London you are more likely to be safer than if you ventured at night to the countryside or rural areas on your own. Even within a big city, disparity exists between different areas due to a diverse number of social, economic and/or demographic factors. When you compare Libyan society with another one like Britain in terms of violent crime or rape for example, you cannot ignore some important issues. Among many, these include the way policing and reporting of crime is carried out, the relative sizes of the populations (60 million compared with 6 million!), the amount of alcohol and drugs consumed per population and lastly the news media which reports the crimes.
Shame, stigma and taboos play little role, if any, in the way western media reports and analyses incidents of harassment, abuse or crime. Many seem to ignore the fact that a news-worthy report must have an edge and/or a shocking, entertaining or another unique or interesting aspect for the news editor to consider publishing or broadcasting it; and crimes and violence are at the top of the list. The free media industry in the west, in addition to adhering to its legal, moral and institutional obligations, acts in a competitive environment where its winning formula is based on attracting the attention of the reader, listener or viewer in a creative manner. Ironically, it is because a violent crime or rape is rarely encountered by 99% of the population that when it happens it becomes a news-worthy issue which attracts the news media to cover it in full and for the public to be attracted to it.
It is not uncommon in Arab and Muslim societies to refrain from admitting or publishing serious societal problems because of the misconception that their traditions, customs and culture are more superior to the “decadent west”. In order for this image not to be tarnished (it is all about image!), it is better not to wash or display the dirty linen in public, with no regard for the consequences(3). This was reflected in the way the media conducted itself in the past and by the relatively small number of crimes that get reported to the police and to the media. Rape and harassment in particular are rarely reported, if at all, because of the dire social implications to the victim. Even in Britain the statistics show that there is an increase in the reporting of rape crimes in the last ten years compared to the preceding ten. Not because rape crimes have suddenly increased, rather it is because of the increased public awareness in relation to the benefits to the victim of not staying silent and of the need to catch the rapists and to prevent them from attacking again. Not reporting or covering crimes in the media does not mean that they do not happen. Plenty of evidence exists to show that, in the presence of an effective criminal justice system, the psychological benefits of reporting a crime to the victim and to society well outweigh the negatives of not doing so.
I fully agree with Yolanda that Libya is going through a transformational stage in its history. From what I have heard and read about what is taking place in Libya recently, it is very heartening and encouraging to hear voices like hers attempting to bring attention to serious social issues which have potential economic implications for the prosperity and well being of the people and the country.
3. Interestingly, when Mustafa Akkad’s film “Lion of the Desert” about Omar Al Mukhtar was released in the early eighties, the Italian government banned all cinemas from showing it on the basis that it would not be in Italy’s self-interest to disgrace its armed forces by “displaying our dirty linen in public for all to see”!!