#MeToo Movement Clashes with Arab Patriarchy

Patriarchy in the Arab world and in Arab expatriate communities continues to stymie the #MeToo movement’s progress in preventing sexual harassment and violence against women.

Moroccan singer Saad Lamjarred, known for hits such as “Lamallem” and “Ghazali,” was arrested on the morning of August 26 and charged with allegedly assaulting a woman in a nightclub in Saint-Tropez, France. The French prosecutor’s office in Draguignan said that the 33-year-old singer was released two days later on his own recognizance pending a hearing. This is not the first, or even second, time that Lamjarred has been charged with sexual assault or rape.

In May 2016, a woman told the New York Post that the Moroccan singer had sexually assaulted her in an apartment in New York in 2010. Lamjarred was subsequently charged with rape and released on bail. After his release, however, Lamjarred left the U.S. skipping out on bail. The prosecutor later dropped the charges when the woman in question withdrew her complaint after reportedly agreeing to a settlement.

The superstar was arrested again in October 2016, after allegedly assaulting Laura Prioul, a young French woman found by a housekeeper in a hallway, half naked and bruised, at a luxury hotel in Paris. In April 2017, French authorities temporarily released Lamjarred on bail, this time under electronic surveillance, after he had spent nearly six months at the Marriott Champs Elysées in Paris awaiting trial. Charged with aggravated rape and assault, his case has yet to go to trial.

Lamjarred denied Prioul’s allegations against him, and dozens of Moroccan and international singers, including several women, Emirati star, Ahlam, and Moroccan singer, Asma El Mnawar, expressed sympathy and solidarity with Lamjarred. Prioul was vilified for accusing him and received death threats.

The popular Moroccan singer is not the only high profile Arab figure or person of Arab descent, to be accused of sexual misconduct over the past decade. In 2009, Algerian singer Cheb Mami, credited with popularizing Algeria’s Rai folk music internationally, was arrested in France and sentenced to five years for abducting an ex-partner, a French photographer, and forcing her to undergo a failed abortion in 2005 in Algiers, the capital of Algeria. Cheb Mami initially denied the charges and claimed that he was being persecuted because he was a successful Arab star.

However, during his trial, Cheb Mami expressed remorse and asked for the woman’s forgiveness. He tearfully admitted that he had made a “serious mistake,” and justified it by claiming that the unexpected news had made him feel “trapped.” The Algerian star also blamed his former manager Michel Lecorre, also known as Michel Levy, for being behind the plot.

Lecorre received a four-year prison sentence for plotting and organizing the assault, and two of Cheb Mami’s aides, Hicham Lazaar and Abdelkader Lallali, were convicted in absentia and sentenced to three and six years in jail respectively for their involvement.

Two years later, the Algerian singer was out on parole after serving less than half of his five-year sentence on the condition that he stayed in France and did not discuss the case. An unnamed judicial source told AFP news agency that prosecutors “had been satisfied” that the risk of the Algerian popular singer “reoffending was ‘limited,’” according to BBC.

In October 2017, French author and feminist activist, Henda Ayari, filed a complaint against Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Swiss-born Islamic scholar, author and grandson of Hassan Banna, founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The complaint filed with the Rouen prosecutor’s office in northwestern France, detailed criminal acts of rape, sexual assault, and intimidation, according to a document reviewed by AFP.

Ayari published on Facebook that she and Ramadan had been using the social media site to correspond with each other on matters such as religious advice, until one day he proposed a meeting at a hotel. The 41 year old claimed that Ramadan assaulted her in the Paris hotel room in 2012.

“Many people are angry because I denounced someone whom people respect a lot,” she said in a telephone interview with the New York Times. “I, for example, never would have thought he would do that to me never, never. I had a great admiration for him for years. For me, he was something like a saint. . . . And today I have decided to denounce him . . . because there are religious men who profit from their position to abuse women.”

A second woman, a disabled 45-year-old Muslim convert, also gave an account of an allegedly violent assault by him in Lyon in 2009 to French newspapers Le Monde and Le Parisien. The woman said that she too had corresponded with Ramadan on Facebook and met him in his hotel during a conference to discuss religion, where she said she was raped and beaten. Following the incident, the unnamed woman said that she received numerous threats over a period of months to keep silent.

A judicial source said that Ramadan was arrested by French police on January 28 and charged with the “connected charges of rape and rape of a vulnerable person,” according to France 24. The well-known scholar was ordered to remain in French custody in February 2018. Despite requests from Ramadan’s lawyers for his release in July, the appeals court upheld Ramadan’s detention, on grounds that he was a flight risk.  

After a complaint filed by a Swiss woman on April 13 in Geneva, investigators gathered enough evidence for the prosecutor’s office to arrest Ramadan and hold him in custody. A court in Geneva heard Ramadan’s case and determined that the “threshold necessary to justify opening a criminal investigation [was] present,” according to a report in Le Point. All the accusations that have been made against Ramadan surfaced as a result of the #BalanceTonPorc (“expose your pig”) campaign which began in France last year, a French counterpart to the U.S. #MeToo movement.

Although there seems be a growing intolerance for sexual misconduct globally, the ability of popular Arab male public figures to evade both the legal and social consequences of their actions exposes the failure of the #MeToo movement to gain traction in the Arab world and Arab expatriate communities worldwide.

While the voices of more victims are being heard, they are frequently diminished by their geographical context, their socio-economic status, their political and religious influence, and that of their abusers. Victims’ inability to prosecute, much less obtain convictions and censure against their abusers, highlights how lax and ineffective many legal and social institutions are in punishing sexual predators in the Arab world—and even beyond. These cases underline how the intersection of power, privilege, and context can enhance the power of the aggressor while crushing the voice of the victim.

Certainly, the victims of Lamjarred, Cheb Mami, and Ramadan have been accorded more credibility, social agency and legal protections due to their American and European citizenships. Moreover, these victims’ countries of citizenship give them access to social, economic, and political resources and platforms that are often unavailable to Arab women, or even non-Arab women, in the Arab world.

In the case of Cheb Mami’s assault on his ex-lover, he was tried in France rather than where he committed his acts of violence—Algeria. The Algerian singer’s aides were also sentenced in absentia in France, not Algeria, for their roles in the crime. Would there have been any conviction in Algeria? If not, what does this say about the Algerian justice system or Arab legal systems in general?

What does it say about a country when a victim must seek justice elsewhere—in a country other than where he or she experienced the injustice? What does it say when individuals who have been publicly identified as accessories to a violent crime are not punished for it in the country in which they committed it? It sends the message that victims of aggression, sexual violence, and sexual harassment in the Arab world, or Arab expatriate communities, have no legal recourse and must accept brazen miscarriages of justice.

Unfortunately, the Arab world is not ready for the #MeToo movement. It is not ready to admit that there is a problem to begin with, let alone that it should be publicly exposed. The premise of the #MeToo movement is difficult for Arab societies to embrace because, generally speaking, exposing one’s personal misfortunes or inadequacies in public, or even in private, goes against the very core of Arab upbringing.

Moreover, a culture of shame exists that exposes not only the victim, but the victim’s family to societal embarrassment and shame if such crimes become public. Even further, the victim is blamed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the wrong clothes, or even “asking for it.”

The taboo of confronting sexual harassment in the Middle East and North Africa goes much deeper than an obsessive desire to save face or to maintain the social status quo by protecting the powerful. It is the result of a lack of dialogue in Arab nuclear families about everyday life events—especially things that could be interpreted as shameful.

The definition of what is shameful and what is considered shameful to talk about in Arab culture is different from other cultures. In Western culture, talking about sex, sexuality, intimacy and relationships has become normal both in public and private, as a result of the women’s liberation movement that began transforming western society in the 1970s. This is not true in the Arab world. Not only are these topics not addressed in public, they are rarely discussed in private.

On the rare occasion that these topics are discussed in public, they are usually fraught with conservative, discriminatory, and patronizing rhetoric. On the even rarer occasion that they are discussed in private, they are often full of confusing explanatory euphemisms, questionable advice, and very few answers to the many questions that people, especially young Arabs, tend to have about these nuanced topics.

While in American homes, most parents would now expect to give their children “The Talk” when they reach an appropriate age, an Arab parent would likely never broach the topics of sexuality or sexual relationships with their children, no matter how old they get, because these topics are considered “shameful.”

There is an important cultural distinction between Western and Arab societies. The former assumes that children will eventually enter relationships and become sexually active as early as their teenage years. Conversely, the latter assumes that children are not thinking about relationships and will not be sexually active until after they get married. Another distinction is that, typically, in Arab societies people get married at a much younger age than in the West.  

However, with the advent of technology, the globalization of communication, and the import of media and icons incongruent with the sexual politics of this culture, Arab societies are changing. Young Arabs are no longer solely influenced by Arab culture, but by borrowed cultures that reflect today’s more interconnected, integrated, and global reality, and that means their relationship with sex is changing.  

In many Arab families, the relationship between parents and most older family members, and children is defined by a formality that is, perhaps mistakenly, equated to respect. This “respect” often makes children avoid talking to the adults in their lives about sex, sexuality, relationships, love, hopes, aspirations, and much more, because they feel that it would be perceived as a sign of “disrespect” — or worse, that their ideas and dreams would be crushed by the weight of their parents’ disapproval and societal expectations.

Ultimately, this leaves many young Arabs to navigate the murky waters of patriarchy, gender roles, and intimacy on their own. Instead of seeking guidance from the authority figures in their life, they watch movies, listen to music, and ask their young counterparts for advice. They form their own personal and social expectations of “how things should work,” but often feel trapped by the cultural expectations of where they live. Thus, they adopt an internal code of conduct that represents a bizarre fusion of hypersexualized Western culture and, at times, ultra conservative Eastern values.

How can a society that cannot broach the topic of sex and sexuality in private even begin to have a public conversation about it? How can Arab women and men expose the inequalities that exist in their social structures if they cannot talk about the Arab patriarchy and cultural Islam that jealously protect these inequalities in their own homes?   

In order to dismantle the social power structures that allow the cultures of toxic masculinity and “Islamically-justified” misogyny to persist in public institutions and spaces in the Arab world, Arabs have to be able to communicate about these injustices in private. After all, what is the point of having a public movement that denounces the sexual misconduct of influential people, if the ideas that enable these heinous acts are reinforced in Arab homes by ill-conceived attempts to “avoid rocking the boat?”

Arab societies need more than a hashtag to promote gender equality and deter sexual abuse. The list of things that need to be done in order to achieve these goals in the Arab world is endless. Luckily, the most important thing that has to be done is within the control of every Arab person. Change in the Arab world will start when Arab people can start to have an open dialogue in their homes about the issues of sex, sexuality, intimacy, and relationships.

While it may be difficult, it is necessary. No lasting change can occur in Arab public institutions and spaces until they occur in private spaces. The belief that the personal is political has never been more true, and the Arab world will never be able to tackle its institutional politics until it tackles its “internal politics.”

Although the #MeToo movement has inspired millions of women, and men, globally to share their stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault, the movement’s influence, especially in the Arab world, has been limited so far. Even in countries that have adopted new legislation criminalizing violence against women, the lack of enforcement, inadequate punishment of sexual offenders, and the seemingly arbitrary standards they are held to will condemn the movement to fail in accomplishing its ultimate goals of making sexual offenders accountable for their actions and overturning archaic patriarchal structures. The #MeToo movement is ultimately a plea for justice, not an enactment of it, and so far, Arab women’s requests for change have been denied.