A Syrian website dedicated to women’s affairs has published a shocking report detailing instances of sexual harassment and exploitation allegedly carried out by a male Syrian aid worker and activist.
The report, written by Zaina Erhaim and Nidal Ayoub for the Mutaharirah website (known as Liberated-T in English), featured interviews with eight Syrian women who accused Ahed Murad, who worked with several Syrian and international NGOs, of attempting to exploit and intimidate them into sexual relations.
The women who made the accusations were all given anonymity by the website.
Authors Erhaim and Ayoub said that there were strong taboos against women speaking out about sexual harassment in Syrian society and that the women “were more susceptible to exploitation” than other women.
They reported that the women included activists, wives of detainees in Bashar Assad regime prisons, and colleagues of Murad.
Erhaim has previously worked for the BBC and won several awards for her journalism.
‘Using liberation, feminism to harass women’
The first woman interviewed, aged 35, accused Murad of “using liberation and feminism as justifications to harass me”, she said.
She met Murad at a workshop on project management held in Beirut in 2016. He presented himself to her as a person interested in women’s issues, but then began to talk about sex, she alleged. When she tried to stop him, she said, he accused her of being “backward” and having “a fossilized brain”.
She said he later surprised her by knocking on the door of her hotel room in the evening with a bottle of wine, saying that he had come to apologise.
The woman said that she reluctantly allowed him in but left the door open “in case of any incident”. According to her account, Murad, however, closed the door and tried to touch her. When she repelled him, he said that “this was normal between friends”. He allegedly continued to try to get close to her, saying “I’m drunk and something might happen between us.”
She then told him that nothing would happen and asked him to leave. However, she said that Murad then asked her, “Don’t you support freedom?” and grabbed her buttocks.
She said she then screamed and he allegedly left after making disparaging remarks. She added that Murad contacted her again after this, not to apologise, but to tell her that if he had not been drunk, he would have raped her and that women “are all tools for us to take pleasure in”.
The second woman interviewed, aged 26, accused Murad of attempted rape, saying that she met him at a 2017 workshop also held in Beirut by the Syrian NGO Dawlaty, which works for nonviolent political change and supports a peaceful transition to democracy.
Murad, who was a Dawlaty employee at the time, was one of the organisers of the workshop and oversaw training sessions as part of it.
The woman said that he also knocked on the door of her hotel room, with three bottles of vodka in his hands.
“I told him that I didn’t drink alcohol but I allowed him in,” she said in the interview. “I was new to these surroundings and I didn’t want to seem backward or unworldly.”
While Syrian society is generally very conservative about male-female interactions, many young Syrians have adopted a more liberal attitude in recent years. In the Middle East, Lebanon is generally perceived as more liberal setting than other Arab countries.
The woman said that she went with Murad to the balcony where he complained about his unhappy marriage and began to cry. He then tried to hold her hand, she said.
She pulled away however, and left the balcony, giving the excuse that she was thirsty and needed to get water. However, she said that he chased her, forcibly grabbed hold of her and began to rip her clothes off. She said that when he tried to take off his trousers, she managed to get away and run out of the room.
According to the second woman’s account, the next morning Murad apologised to her.
However, she says that he continued to contact her in order to intimidate and exploit her.
“He felt that because he was not punished for the incident, he could continue with his behaviour,” she said. “The incident itself became a tool for him to blackmail me with. He would keep telling me, ‘we’re live in an conservative society, they will believe me and blame you if you decide to talk about what happened’.”
Fear of speaking out
She said she didn’t tell the workshop organisers about what had happened because she didn’t know the complaints procedure and doubted whether they would believe her.
“It was my word against his. I was a new girl they didn’t know, but he was an employee they knew well.”
In 2018, Dawlaty fired Murad from his job after the first allegations of harassment against him came to light. On Friday, when Erhaim and Ayoub’s article was published, Dawlaty released a statement expressing support for the victims,saying that they have “so bravely spoken out about their experiences”.
The third woman, a 28-year-old, worked with Murad on a project which he coordinated, and she accused him of exploiting his position and her need to make a living to harass her. However, she withdrew her testimony from the report, saying that she feared Murad was still capable of harming her.
The other five women interviewed all worked under Murad’s authority in Dawlaty or the Syrian Oral History Archive. They alleged that he harassed them through remarks he made, numerous attempts to pressure them into visiting his house and attempting to inappropriately touch them or get physically close.
According to the report, besides Dawlaty, two international NGOs stopped working with Murad because of allegations of sexual harassment against him. The NGOs were not named in the report.
The Syrian conflict, which began in 2011 with the brutal suppression of peaceful protests by the Assad regime, has seen several other instances of abuse, harassment and exploitation by aid workers against vulnerable people.
In 2018, the BBC reported that men delivering aid on behalf of the UN to Syrian refugees had pressured women into granting them sexual favours in return for food or transport.
A UN report in that year concluded that displaced women and women “without male protectors” were “regarded as particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation”.
The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.