Six women told of repeated unwanted advances by director Jaafar al-Attar - actions he describes as "an annoyance" - in a test case for Lebanon's new sexual harassment law
By Timour Azhari
BEIRUT, June 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Tracy Younes went public with accusations of sexual harassment by a local film director, the Lebanese actress said she spoke out "so people like him know their limits".
Within days, more than a dozen women had got in touch to recount similar experiences with the same man - including late night texts and offers of roles in his films that turned into sexual advances and descriptions of sexual fantasies.
Their stories quickly drew media attention, prompting a police investigation and the first known criminal complaints filed by women under Lebanon's new sexual harassment law.
"They said: 'me too, me too, he tried it with me too,'" Younes, 27, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The director and journalist, Jaafar al-Attar, has not been charged and has denied all allegations of sexual harassment, saying his actions instead constitute "an annoyance".
Six of the women have given testimony about what they said were repeated unwanted messages, phone calls and sexual advances by the director and journalist, Jaafar al-Attar, in what their lawyer Ayman Raad called a "test case".
Those involved said the landmark case had the potential to hold men in power to account for their actions in a country where women have been pushing boundaries amid an economic crisis and months-long street protests.
"It has the ability to set a precedent," Raad said.
A 2017 survey by UN Women found that nearly 60% of women in Lebanon experienced some form of sexual harassment such as cat-calling and online harassment in life, with half experiencing it in the previous three months.
Adopted by parliament in December, the new law criminalises "any recurring bad behaviour that is out of the ordinary, unwelcome by the victim, and has a sexual connotation".
Under the legislation, harassment can be through "words, actions, or sexual or pornographic references," including those made online, and offences can be punished by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to 10 times the minimum wage.
Feminist groups said the law opened a new avenue for accountability in a country where women face discrimination at a host of religious courts that oversee issues of marriage and child custody.
Sounding caution, Human Rights Watch said the legislation failed to force employers to take preventative measures against sexual harassment and did not adequately protect women from possible retaliation, including in the workplace.
"This case puts the law on trial," said Hayat Mirshad, co-director at Fe-Male, a local feminist group. "Either we prove it can really protect women or it fails the first test."
When asked about the women's allegations, Attar said his repeated calls, messages and non-explicit images he shared with women constituted "an annoyance" - but not sexual harassment.
"It was wrong to do," the 33-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone, saying his behaviour was driven by cannabis consumption that mixed poorly with medication he was taking, including for bipolar disorder.
Raad said some of the individual cases had elements of physical harassment and one included an alleged rape.
Attar denied the allegations and said he had not yet been called in for questioning by authorities.
A spokesman for Lebanon's Internal Security Forces (ISF) confirmed that an investigation was ongoing, but declined to provide further details.
Some of the women who have accused Attar of sexual harassment say he used work as a pretext for contacting them, including offers to act in a film he said he was producing.
Younes said she had received a number of messages, selfie-style images and late-night calls from Attar over two months after he initiated contact to offer her a role in a film.
When she blocked him on one app, he messaged her on another using a fake name, she said, leading her to tell him she would call the police if he spoke to her again.
Another woman, Lebanese journalist Luna Safwan, said Attar had first contacted her on a work-related matter before changing the subject and describing sexual fantasies involving her.
When Safwan tried to "shut him down", he persisted, she said, adding that she hoped the women's decision to speak out would jolt Lebanon's notoriously slow court system into action.
"It's a very important step for us to take together but we need to wait and see how things work out."
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(Reporting by Timour Azhari @timourazhari Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths and Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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