Palestinian Women Must Speak Out

NOVANEWS

By Maha Mehanna

Sexual harassment has become a threat to women everywhere in the world. Wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, and students have all been subjected to sexual harassment. Although there are cases of men being sexually harassed, the percentage is much lower than that of women. Sexual harassment can involve sexual jokes or remarks or indicating a wish to engage in sexual activity. Although in developed countries this issue is actively being addressed, in developing countries such as Palestine, this is still a struggle.
Not a single week passes without our hearing about things that go on in the workplace in Palestine. The stories would make your hair turn gray! We hear horror stories of secretaries and others who endure sexual advances by their managers and, if they resist, are met with grave consequences, including but not limited to getting fired. 
Women have many times been forced to accept a manager who would call them into their office and in a quick move force his arm up their skirt or blouse. Some have bravely resisted. Some have even fought back. But many remain silent for fear of losing their jobs in our unemployment-ridden economy.
Many women have decided to just drop everything and forget totally about finding a decent job, whereas others have accepted this harassment and have even taken advantage of the situation for material gain, even occasionally getting married to the abuser. Most of these women, however, keep their silence and tears inside and remain utterly alone.
Some women put up with working in an environment of sexual harassment for years, and they resist every attempt made by their bosses to pursue them; and just when they think that matters could not get worse, their bosses’ requests turn into acts of revenge. Women are denied promotions as well as other privileges at work. When bosses still don’t succeed in getting women to cooperate, they try to pressure them to quit their jobs voluntarily.
Other women – single mothers, for example – spend their days at work trying to avoid their bosses’ sexual stares and dirty remarks, and they end up taking out the stress they experience at work on their children at home.
Such incidents give only a small glimpse into what Palestinian women in the workforce can face. There are a number of reasons to explain why this issue is not widely addressed in our society and why many women do not take any action when they are sexually harassed.

1) The sensitivity of the subject. Victims of sexual harassment are afraid that they will be blamed and their reputation ruined. This discourages them from speaking out.
2) Fear. In general, a woman has no one to resort to for help. If she talks to her family, it might end up that she – or the perpetrator – would be the victim of an honour killing. If she goes to the police, she is risking a scandal and a ruined reputation. Such a hard issue indeed.

3) A sense of futility. The woman may feel that it is useless to address the problem because her boss will not have to face real consequences, and her complaint may even be ignored by his supervisor because he doesn’t want to damage the company’s reputation.
4) Lack of trust and ignorance. It is difficult for a woman to prove that she has been sexually harassed. Women are also unaware of their rights in the workplace.

Women can try to resolve such a problem informally at the beginning. But if that doesn’t work, they must seek help.
Palestinian women must speak out. The worst thing that they can do is to shut up! They should not allow anyone to bully them around. Not their managers, not their co-workers, not their employees, not their employers, not their customers, and surely not their husbands.
In my view, the only way out of this, in addition to raising awareness, is to have strict laws that govern conduct in the workplace. If someone is involved in the sexual harassment of a co-worker, action needs to be taken. A comprehensive and neutral investigation needs to be conducted and justice should prevail, even if the owner of the business or a high-level public servant is involved in such acts.
It is also vital that we take effective action to create a healthy working environment for women in Palestine. We can do that by educating men and women about sexual harassment and their rights at work, school, and university. We have a long way to go, but a journey of a thousand miles really does begin with a single step.

Maha Mehanna is based in Al-Rimal, Gaza, and is a banking professional who until recently was employed as a dealer and administrative assistant in the Investment and Foreign Operations Department of the Palestine Monetary Authority in Gaza. She is educated in Community Rehabilitation from the University of Calgary, Canada, and may be reached.

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