Women have faced sexual harassment for millennia. But one of the unforeseen benefits of the rise of digital technology has meant that, around the world, new ways are being found of fighting back.
In Lebanon, three women have created an app that allows women to track their experiences of sexual harassment. Launched in February this year, HarassTracker is essentially an online reporting tool that allows women who have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment to pinpoint the location on a map and provide details about what happened.
HarassTracker was founded by Nay el-Rahi, Sandra Hassan and Myra el-Mir. Human rights journalist el-Rahi, 30, from Beirut, was recently chosen as one of the most “inspiring and influential women” of 2016 in the BBC’s 100 Women list.
“What we have in Lebanon is that we don’t people tend to claim to know what sexual harassment is and tell the victim or the survivor that it’s fine, or it happens every day, or you’re dressed too lightly or you had a lot to drink,” el-Rahi tells the BBC.
“What we’re trying to do is say that whatever the victim or the survivor of sexual harassment says is sexual harassment, then this is it. And we’re hoping that this tool is going to help us do that.”
According to el-Rahi, “everyone knows that sexual harassment is prevalent in Lebanon”. However, she says that a lack of hard data and documentation of women’s experiences makes it difficult for women to push for change from local and national government and other organisations.
Using the information provided by the app’s users, el-Rahi and her colleagues hope to compile data that will enable them to suggest proactive steps to help reduce sexual harassment: “like lighting the streets, like fixing pavements [and] training internal security forces to how to better deal with victims of sexual violence,” says el-Rahi.
El-Rahi continues: “The longer term objective is to basically shift the discourse around sexual harassment from dismissal and victim blaming and victim shaming into a more serious investigation of what could be done.”
Over a millon Syrian refugees live in Lebanon, and human rights groups say that refugee women face a heightened risk of sexual harassment when they flee over the border from Syria. Amnesty International reported earlier this year that Syrian women in Lebanon face “constant sexual harassment and exploitation”, including being offered money or other assistance by Lebanese men in exchange for sex.
“I feel threatened financially, psychologically and emotionally,” said Reem, a 28-year-old refugee living in Beirut. “My life pattern has changed. The way I do my hair has changed and I have to dress differently. Everyone approaches me to go with them in exchange for money. [Once] I was almost kidnapped.”
El-Rahi tells the BBC that women of all ages face sexual harassment, but points out that more vulnerable women can find themselves particularly targeted. “The poorer, the darker-skinned [you are], all of these things intertwine with the fact of you being a woman in the cities,” she says.
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However, she and the other women behind HarassTracker are determined that their app will eventually change women’s experiences of life in Lebanon. “We never said that it’s going to be easy, and we always knew that it’s going to be very long-term,” she says. “This is just the beginning.”
HarassTracker is currently only available for use in Lebanon, but it’s not just in the Middle East that women are using technology to battle against sexual harassment. In the UK, Laura Bates’ game-changing Everyday Sexism Project has evolved from a blog cataloguing experiences of harassment into a bestselling book and a powerful feminist campaigning force.
The site and mobile app Hollaback, meanwhile, allows women in over 40 locations including London, Sao Paulo, Sydney and Delhi to post their stories and pictures, “regaining some of the power that’s lost in the moment of harassment”.