Who Won’t Sexually Harass or Assault

By Laura Haddad

The #MeToo movement* that swept the globe in recent months inspired regional spinoffs such as #NotYourHabibti. Prominent educators, activists and parents join our roundtable discussion, hosted by Al Marji’ Publications, about the challenges of raising sons who don’t grow up to be misogynistic and abusive. 

The majority of parents do not go around actively teaching their child that sexual harassment and assault are okay, experts say. But every day, well-meaning parents contribute to a system that tolerates and perpetuates mistreatment and violence. This promptes our first question: Why not start the conversation with our sons?

“We often talk about victimhood and helping girls, but what about changing the behaviour of the perpetrators?,” asks Wendy Merdian, who’s spent 25 years in Jordan mentoring abuse victims.

Participants in the roundtable agree that the empowerment of girls and women is the focus of many positive efforts, but there are limitations to their effectiveness if boys and men are not included in these efforts.

Normalising predatory behaviour

Lana Zananiri,  head of the Gender Unit at Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD), says men all too often regard their abusive behaviours as normal and acceptable.

“They don’t know it’s a crime,” the mother of four exclaims. “Or that it’s inappropriate for a colleague or your supervisor to give you lingerie.”

Harassment and abuse don’t require physical interaction, Zananiri stresses.

“Posting, sending and soliciting unwanted photos and messages constitute  sexual harassment,” she adds.

“Because of the disparity in power relations, men feel entitled to consume and possess anything, even turn women into a commodity,” notes Dr Wafa Khadra, a women’s rights activist. “I have a right to do that, I can own it, manipulate it, abuse it – this is what boys and men internalise,” explains Khadra who worked on curriculum reform in Jordan. Over the span of more than 20 years, she has seen inequalities and traditional ideas of masculinity as playing a crucial role in shaping and perpetuating violence against women.

Accountability: from blame to understanding   

High School teacher Kariman Mango urges parents to reflect on “what experiences boys and men have on a day-to-day basis. What are their teachers like? What are their parents like? Who are their role models? They too need protection from a system.”

According to Nermeen Murad, a gender specialist, men’s issues go hand-in-hand with addressing abuse and inequality. “There are global challenges that men everywhere deal with but in our religious and regional context, there’s added pressure on boys and men to be protectors and providers,” she says. “A lot of them are aggressive and angry because they are unable to achieve what is expected of them throughout their lives,” Murad explains.

Poor role models are also a contributing factor in perpetuating the cycle of abuse, according to Fadi Zaghmout.  “Some grow up around older boys who pass on misogynist messages. They lack proper interaction with the opposite sex in order to challenge and correct these inherited ideas,” notes Zaghmout, author of The Bride of Amman. First published in Arabic, the novel follows the intersecting lives of four women and one gay man in Jordan’s capital as they navigate the constricting societal structures of gender identity and confront sexual harassment and abuse in the process. 

Male entitlement

Participants in the roundtable agree that the sense of entitlement boys are brought up with in the Arab World is a root cause of violence. “We don’t actively teach boys to be violent or to bully, but we [impart it] by building up their sense of entitlement,” says Murad. Entitlement she makes grants them permission to hold power over girls and ‘weaker’ boys.

Experts and researchers agree that male violence is directly linked to male egoism. “It’s no wonder so many men indulge in self-praise, overestimate their competencies and believe they are entitled to a woman’s time, attention and body,” states visual artist, singer and actor Mohammad Qaq. He says that mothers often play a hand in raising such boys with over-inflated egos. He began documenting male violence 10 years ago as part of his social art and storytelling training for communities throughout the Arab world. What he found in common across the demographics of culture, religion, class and age is male egoism.

Challenging gender stereotypes 

Dr Yaman Tal, Consultant Urological Surgeon and Consultant in Sexual Medicine, warns against using and normalising the frequently uttered insult “like a girl” as it communicates that something is wrong with an entire sex.

Child Development and Parenting Specialist Sirsa Qursha admits that many parents come to her concerned about their boys being “feminine”. However, she doesn’t hear parents concerned about their daughters’ masculinity. It’s because “being feminine is seen as being weaker, lacking, looked down upon,” she explains.

“Stop playing like girl” and “stop crying like a girl” suggest someone who’s useless, weak, laughable, says Tal. Qursha adds, “We don’t celebrate femininity or womanhood from the perspective of strength.”

Teaching by example

Khadra teaches by example with her three boys and says that there are simple ways parents can teach their boys compassion and respect. Having a pet, for example, taught her boys responsibility, empathy, compassion, caring and respect. These are values and skills that can be taught and ones that bullies and other abusers often lack.

Educator Jumana Sabella points to her husband as a positive role model for their three sons. “If the men in a boy’s life are not being respectful and giving women a voice, he is not likely to grow up to be any different,” she says.

Rola Hamdan, mother of two girls, agrees, adding that “if kids hear parents degrade women or excusing harassment or sexual assault in any way, they will internalise that harmful message.”

Murad concludes that couples too need to role model for their children what a healthy, consensual relationship looks like. 

Stay tuned next month as our Table Talk panellists continue to discuss parents’ role in sexual abuse prevention

Did you know?

  • A local study commissioned by Sisterhood is
  • Global Institute-Jordan reveals that one in two female
  • survivors of sexual assault in Jordan hesitate to file a complaint against their offenders out of fear of shame or scandal
  • In a UN Women 2016 – 2017 report, 26% of respondents in the Middle East and North Africa cite that a woman should tolerate violence to keep the family unit intact
  •   Around 80% of cybercrime victims in Jordan are women,
  • according to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID)