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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Accused Serial Sexual Assaulter Marwan Habib’s Arrest, a Bittersweet Victory

Marwan Habib
Women take part in a demonstration in the Lebanese capital Beirut. Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP

Sophia Akram

The long-awaited search for justice for victims of accused Lebanese serial sexual assaulter Marwan Habib has taken an international turn following his arrest in Florida in January this year, some two years after he first gained notoriety in his native Lebanon.

Though dozens of women had shared accounts of their harassment and assault by Habib back in 2019, he had remained free, even going so far as to travel to the United States where he took up residence in Miami

Habib was taken into custody on January 7 at his home in South Beach, Miami, after an incident in November 2021 when the 32-year-old reportedly lied his way into the hotel room of a woman he met at a clothing shop earlier in the day.

Coaxing the establishment’s staff into giving him the keys to her room, he entered without the woman’s permission, jumped on top of her, and tried to kiss her. He now faces charges of assault and burglary.

This isn’t a precedent for Habib in the US; other women in his area of residence have complained about his behavior, which has been described as “odd and concerning.”

A US police report, according to local news outlet WSVN 7 News Miami, stated the defendant is known to “pursue females in order to have sex or date them, even after they advised them to stop doing so on multiple occasions.”

Testimonies against Habib first flooded Lebanese social media in November 2019, including warnings that he was a sexual predator and calling him out after seeing a photo circulating of him participating in the 2019 Lebanese uprising.

Instagram account Beirut by Dyke was one such account that first posted women’s reports of Habib’s harassment in an effort to expose him all the while protecting the identities of victims.

“He followed me into the showers after my boxing lessons and tried to corner me in one of the shower stalls. I pushed him out and filed a complaint,” read one testimony.

“He is a rapist. He hid my keys so I wouldn’t leave. He’s fucking huge, he suffocated me. I screamed and he wouldn’t move a muscle. I have a whole story that I really don’t want to recap, he traumatized me. Stop defending this dangerous piece of shit,” read another, as reported by Beirut.com.

Testimonies also included those from underage survivors. Then 18-year-old Marya Latif was among the first to come forward. She described how Habib had persistently pressed her to have sexual intercourse with him after meeting at a Beirut eatery. Her testimony signaled some 50 more others.

Habib reportedly sued Latif for cyberbullying, slander, and defamation, pressuring her into eventually downplaying the accusations and apologizing.

Though protesters marched in solidarity with sexual harassment and assault survivors, the call for women’s rights converged with the mass protest movements of 2019 against corruption, mismanagement, and marginalization. Ensuing political and economic instability placed several pressing judicial charges, including those filed against Habib, on the backburner.

Lawyer Kareem Majbour, who had filed a law suit against Habib in 2019, explained in a thread how more than 100 women had reached out to him with their stories. But none of their stories were able to bring down Habib due to what many view are his political connections with Lebanese politicians.

“Should we take matters into our own hands like in a jungle or can we rely on our judicial system to protect at least our basic rights?” wrote Majbour in response.

Victim blaming culture by media and by law:

Habib was given a platform to deny the allegations pressed against him on local television channel MTV – a move many activists and survivors alike saw as downright tone-deaf and insensitive.

“[Such moves] help in shaping public opinion in favor of men, always in favor of the perpetrator, and always silencing the victims and the survivors,” Hayat Mirshad, Co-Director of civil feminist collective Fe-Male, told Fanack.

Providing alleged perpetrators airtime has occurred in other cases of sexual harassment and domestic violence in Lebanon in the past. Just last year, the husband and accused murderer of model Zeina Kanjo was invited onto local news channels including Al-Jadeed and MTV to tell “his side of the story” after fleeing to Turkey.

Similarly, in 2018, MTV gave a platform to the convicted murderer of domestic violence victim Manal Assi. Using CGI, the deceased victim was “resurrected” and placed before her husband Mohammad Nouheili, the man convicted of her murder, granting him forgiveness from beyond the grave. Manal was brutally tortured for several hours by Nouheili, according to reports, before succumbing to her wounds.

Women in Lebanon continue to face discrimination by law and in the media, particularly when it comes to cases of sexual violence and assault. It is a victim-blaming culture reinforced by a legal framework, where the burden of proof is placed on the victims rather than the perpetrators.

As a result, victims largely feel disempowered when it comes to filing cases against perpetrators as they believe there will be no outcome.

Violence against women remains a major issue in Lebanon. A 2016 survey recorded 31% of women as having experienced intimate partner violence, and 24% of men admitted causing it. Advocacy group ABAAD says that one in four women in Lebanon experience some form of sexual assault in their lifetime.

Lebanon’s economic crisis compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic has also exacerbated the problem as domestic violence cases have doubled during the past two years.

A matter of patriarchy:

Needed reform to the laws that govern the lives of women is made complex by the political landscape. Lebanon’s confessional system means various religious interests are represented and must be balanced in the legislative body. This in turn makes change to legislation subject to the country’s 18 sects and religious denominations.

For example, a 2014 enactment of a domestic violence bill that originally outlawed marital rape, was only passed after the provision related to marital rape was removed under pressure from religious authorities.

Personal status laws administered by religious courts also remain biased towards men in family matters such as divorce and child custody.

However, a sexual harassment law passed in December 2020 was heralded as a milestone law. Many expected that it would encourage more victims to speak, leading in a shift in views about harassment. Still, commentators say the legislation falls short, particularly concerning sexual harassment in the workplace.

Meanwhile, the outcome of a “test case” of the law involving director and journalist Jaafar al-Attar, accused by multiple women of harassment, is being awaited after a trial began in November 2021.

“In Lebanon, we have the patriarchal mentality; it’s rooted in our culture, and then our norms and our perceptions. Supported by a corrupt system,” said Mirshad.

“Any progress in Lebanon on women’s issues – from child marriage to custody, to marriage, to divorce, everything – they got because of years of struggle from the feminist movement. It’s not because this corrupt system wanted to make reform,” she continued.

There is a tendency to apply these laws in ways that deny the women complete protection and women, therefore, lose trust in the system and fail to report crimes, Mirshad further explained.

While campaigners and activists await the outcome of the cases of al-Attar and Habib, they continue to demand accountability from institutions that allow such atrocities to go unpunished, as well as the application of laws designed to attain justice.

 

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Nadine Mazloum
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