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Renewed Efforts to Stop Subway Sex Crimes

“She’s more free to tell me everything that she felt happen to her,” Lt. Angela Morris, center, said of the importance of having female officers to handle sex crimes

  Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times

Fanning out along the platform at the City Hall subway station in Manhattan, the plainclothes police officers blended in with the morning commuters. As they prepared to board a northbound train, they watched closely, their eyes darting from rider to rider.

The team of seven officers was searching for men who use the subway’s crowded confines to get too close to women. Some furtively touch female passengers, while others rub up against the women they have targeted.

At Union Square, Detective Marquis Cross saw a man he recognized from a previous sex-offense arrest standing suspiciously close to a female passenger. As the woman left the train, Detective Cross jogged after her to ask if she had felt anything unusual. She said that she had not, but that the man did seem too close

The officers, all from the New York Police Department’s Transit Bureau, were working the Lexington Avenue line, one of the most overcrowded in an increasingly crowded system. The ever-tightening crush of passengers provides easy cover for men who prey on women, the police say.

Offenders will often step off a car and get back on just before the doors close so they have to squeeze next to other riders, Detective Cross said. “They’re looking for a particular crowd or person that they want to get behind,” he said.

Opportunistic sex crimes aboard subways are Not new, nor are they news to many women. Some have been grabbed or leered at by a man who is masturbating. Many others have heard a story from a friend who felt an uncomfortable touch but was unsure if she should say something.

But cellphone cameras and social media have given women tools to fight back and provided the police a way to identify some offenders.

Last year, in an effort to encourage more victims to come forward, the police began training more female officers to work the cases.

The police now send out a stream of alerts about such crimes using photos from victims’ phones to try to identify suspects.

One recent Twitter post shared a photo of a man suspected of grabbing a 27-year-old woman’s buttocks on a No. 7 train in Queens this month. Two days earlier, the police posted a photo of a man they say exposed himself to women on two trains at Grand Central Station.

Reported sex crimes on the subways rose 19 percent last year, to 738 from 620 in 2014.

Many of those crimes were forcible touching and public lewdness, the offenses most commonly charged in connection with the sort of sexual misconduct that Detective Cross and his colleagues were on the lookout for that morning on the Lexington Avenue line.

Joseph Fox, the chief of the Transit Bureau, said he believed the increase in reported sex crimes was a result of more women coming forward. He expects the number of reports will keep rising as the police continue to talk about the problem.

“Many men don’t know this issue exists; far too many women do,” Chief Fox said in an interview. “It’s a crime that goes largely unreported.”

Subway announcements have long warned riders about sexual misconduct, and social media and pop culture have amplified attention to it. The phenomenon was a plotline on the Netflix series “Master of None” when Aziz Ansari’s character confronts an offender on the subway

The police made about 400 arrests last year for sex offenses on the subways, nearly three-fourths of which took place when officers witnessed an episode or a victim sought out a nearby officer who located the suspect. Victims are often embarrassed, confused or rushing to work, so they may not stop to tell a transit worker or go to a police station, Chief Fox said.

One of two female officers on the recent patrol, Lt. Angela Morris has become well versed on sex crimes in the two and a half years she has worked on such cases.

Victims are frequently crying and express shock and humiliation, and they often appear more comfortable speaking to her rather than to her male colleagues, she said.

“She’s more free to tell me everything that she felt happen to her,” Lieutenant Morris said, adding that she had taken women whose clothing was damaged to buy a new outfit.

The most common reports in 2015 were for forcible touching (340 cases) and public lewdness (223 cases), both misdemeanors.

There were 130 episodes of sexual abuse, which can be a misdemeanor or a felony. Rapes, which are felonies, are rare on the subway, Chief Fox said. One was reported last year, and five were reported the previous year.

In 2014, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority created a website for sexual misconduct complaints, where riders can attach a photo or make an anonymous report. The agency has received more than 500 complaints so far, and it forwards them to the police, officials said.

In September, Tiffany D. Jackson, a 33-year-old fiction writer who lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, said that a man followed her onto a No. 3 train in Brooklyn, exposed himself and masturbated while staring at her.

She told the train operator and filed a report at a police station, though it was only after she posted an explicit photo of the man on Instagram and it circulated online that he was arrested.

At the Brooklyn station where Ms. Jackson first reported the encounter, the train operator directed her upstairs to a station booth for assistance. But she did not find that booth, and then, Ms. Jackson saw the offender standing next to her.

She said she hopped the turnstile, raced down to the platform and jumped on the next train toward Manhattan. At Times Square, she went to a police station, where she said officers wrote down her information and a description from the photo on her phone.

But Ms. Jackson said it felt as though they did not take her seriously. After she posted the photo on Instagram and her story spread, Chief Fox emailed her to say that he was sorry she had been victimized on the subway and that he took such cases seriously

“What’s so disturbing is that if I hadn’t posted the picture, one: He wouldn’t have been caught,” Ms. Jackson said. “And two: Nothing would have happened.”

As part of training for transit officers assigned to sex crimes, an anti-harassment group called Hollaback is providing guidance. The group’s deputy director, Debjani Roy, said officers must not dismiss victims’ concerns.

“It’s important to build that empathy and understanding that it is a very traumatic experience,” she said.

Note: In Egypt, this is a common happening to women on trains and buses

Is Libya starting to face up to Gaddafi regime’s sex crimes?

The young woman introduced as “The Revolutionary” was breaking a taboo in Libya: She is speaking out about how she and other women had been raped by Muammar Gaddafi’s men in the early months of the country’s uprising.

Of all the crimes committed during Muammar Gaddafi’s rule and the revolution, rape is perhaps the most difficult to address because so few are willing to testify about it

On Time Lives this July 3, 2013, Bahiya Kanoun, former deputy minister of social affairs, recalls:

Bahiya Kanoun is pictured in her office in Tripoli May 13, 2013. Image by: ISMAIL ZITOUNY / REUTERS
“They arrested me publicly at Nasser University,” she said, recalling how guards in Tripoli came for her and two other young women who expressed support for the revolution that led to Gaddafi’s overthrow.

“They told me, ‘We are only going to take you away for questioning, and then we will bring you back’.”

Instead, a local official told the men: “Take these girls to Mu3tassim and enjoy them tonight.” Mutassim was one of Gaddafi’s sons and a military commander in the capital; he was later captured and killed.

The two unmarried women were taken away and never seen again. The Revolutionary, who was married and pregnant, was taken to a prison near Tripoli, where she was stripped and raped. She miscarried in prison.

The three victims’ crime had been to criticise Gaddafi in a video clip broadcast on an international television channel.

Many people, male and female, were raped as punishment for opposing Gaddafi’s government, but The Revolutionary is one of the few who agreed to talk about her suffering.

In Libya, rape victims are often ostracised, and discussion of the crime remains taboo.

There are small signs of change, with the government promising action to help victims, but the issue remains so sensitive that aid groups sometimes hide their efforts to help victims to avoid causing an outcry.

The Revolutionary, a woman in her 20s, spoke on condition of anonymity from behind a black veil, only her eyes showing. With the pain of recollection, her voice gradually rose to a shrill pitch.

“Our captors wanted to insult us and to take away our dignity,” she said. “The youngest girl there was 14; the oldest was my mother’s age. The women were stripped and subjected to all kinds of torture.”

The torture included electrocution, she told a conference session attended by Reuters. She gave her account at a hotel in Tripoli as part of an event earlier this year organised by the Libya Initiative, a project that brings together various rights groups to promote healing and a just society in post-war Libya.

“Imagine how many women put up with this. It should be recognised,” she said. “But the country is not paying attention to any of these criminals. Maybe they are outside now, standing guard at checkpoints.”

Campaigners say it is important to acknowledge the crimes committed during Gaddafi’s 42-year rule and the revolution that led to his downfall in 2011. They say the painful process is “necessary for stability and the construction of a society based on truth, justice and democracy”.

Souad Wheidi, an activist creating an archive of the sex crimes committed during the revolution, stood next to The Revolutionary as she addressed the conference, comforting her when the girl broke down as she reached the end of her story.

The activist has campaigned for government action and such efforts appear to be having an effect.

Shortly after the Tripoli meeting, the Libyan prime minister proposed a new law to recognise rape and the need for resources to be allocated to victims as a matter of urgency.

“At last, it is a major victory,” said Wheidi, who is confident the law will be passed. “It will bring huge psychological relief after years of stupid injustice against the many people, both male and female, who have been touched by this reality.”


The victims of rape during Libya’s uprising may number in the hundreds, according to the International Criminal Court, which has collected evidence that forces loyal to Gaddafi used rape as a weapon to spread fear among the opposition.

Of all the crimes committed during Gaddafi’s rule and the revolution, rape is perhaps the most difficult to address because so few are willing to testify about it.

There are good reasons for this: victims who speak out risk being shunned or even killed by their families.

Human Rights Watch notes that even after the war, a number of centers in Libya continue to provide havens for women “for no other reason than that they had been raped, and were then ostracised for ‘staining their family’s honour'”.

Victims are also reluctant to come forward because bringing a charge of rape to a Libyan court may be seen as an admission of having had unlawful sex. A rape claim can even result in the victim being prosecuted.

The prevailing, dismissive attitude to rape is reflected by a government ministry set up to support victims of the civil war. The ministry has never offered any help to rape victims. The ministry said such aid was beyond its remit, which is to search for missing people and support families of those killed in the war.

The head of Libya’s human rights commission, congress member Amina Al-Mghirbi, said a draft of a new law to help rape victims was “almost ready”. She added: “It will be approved as soon as possible and contain compensation for treatment as well as settlements.”

In the absence of government support, a number of local groups have pursued their own initiatives. One project is led by Bahiya Kanoun, who escaped from Libya during the revolution after she was branded an enemy of Gaddafi for feeding information from the wives of military men to rebels in the east of the country.

Kanoun began working in refugee camps set up in Tunisia, where thousands of other Libyans fled during the fighting. Kanoun’s training in psychology and her Libyan origin put her in the rare position of being able to help rape victims. Clinics at the camps started calling her in regularly.

One of the privileges Libya can afford – thanks to pumping 1.6 million barrels of oil a day – is to send thousands of students to university abroad on higher education scholarships or business courses. Kanoun wants the government to place rape victims in these existing sponsorship programmes – without revealing what happened to them to anyone, including their families.

Part of the reason Kanoun, who comes from a prominent Libyan family, hopes to succeed is her credibility with the government. She briefly served as a deputy minister of social affairs before deciding she preferred to work independently.

To promote her ideas, Kanoun met Libya’s Minister of Higher Education with a colleague, Maria Nicoletta Giada, who is president of Ara Pacis Initiative, an organisation dedicated to conflict prevention and resolution that is backed by the Italian foreign ministry. Both women said the minister’s response was encouraging.

But Giada cautioned that the road from promises to implementation on a significant scale would be long. “We will have to see if his words translate into actions,” she said.


In Tripoli, it is still difficult to offer social services to women, much less advertise them. Another group, Phoenix Libya, is experimenting with ways to protect women from violence under the guise of other forms of assistance.

It advertises economic support, like classes in English or marketing, and activities for children. But its underlying aim is to give help to women who either have been, or are, subject to abuse of one form or another – without agitating their husbands or fathers, who may even be the perpetrators.

“It’s difficult to build trust. There’s no culture of speaking out,” said Ibtihat Nayed, one of the founders. “We don’t advertise psychological or social support. We are trying to be discreet about that.”

Women’s rights groups say the attitudes of ordinary men are a greater obstacle to helping women than government inertia in a country where many women have to answer to male relatives.

Amnesty International, along with other international organisations involved in Libya during the eight-month civil war that ended Gaddafi’s 42-year rule, said it had not documented a single case of rape because victims would not speak out.

“We think (multiple rapes) might have happened but do not have any evidence,” said Amnesty International. “Everyone said, this happened, but not in our town. It was in the town next door.”




July 2021

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