Last year, a video showing a group of men harassing two girls on a street, said to be in the northern city of Irbid, has hit a raw nerve among many Jordanians. Was the scene of harassment that night as “unfamiliar to the city” as many claimed?
Below, we share some of the most respected voices of the Middle East and North Africa as they speak up about their experiences, stories and opinions on the issue of sexual harassment. My.Kali aims to take on the role of the modern Virginia Woolf, exploring the Sprint-turn-Summer days away from the hustle and cliches of Amman, syncing with the rhythm of a different city.
Q: What factors make sexual harassment more “normal” in a country? And why do you think such stories keep coming up in the media?
Monica Ibrahim, Communications manager at HarassMap خريطة التحرش الجنسي, Cairo – Egypt
We aim to end the social acceptability of sexual harassment by convincing bystanders to stand up to sexual harassment or assault before or when they see it happen. By taking a collective stand against sexual harassment and assault, we can create social and legal consequences as a society that will discourage this behavior and seriously reduce it.
Society sets and repeats the standard of normalcy, so if society continues to tolerate sexual harassment, then it will continue happening at the same levels despite the laws imposed against it. But, if society rejects sexual harassment and meets it with a “zero-tolerance” policy, then we will reach the tipping point necessary to make the desired behavioral change happen.
Aya Chebbi, An award winning Tunisian blogger and activist, Tunis – Tunisia
Before the Revolution, I would face regular sexual harassment in its different forms, ranging from unwanted verbal communication to cat-calls to stalking. A couple of times, people followed me by foot or by car to my home, not stopping with my refusal of the “date” they sought, but what I would actually term “sexual affairs.” The physical touch on the bus is totally unbearable when it’s full… I can’t forget seeing a man standing behind me in the metro masturbating. It took me sometime to deal with such situations, from just standing shocked to becoming able actually speak up. The swarm of laughing men closing around me… the sudden panic attack followed by an attempt to flee the situation or the unwanted touching… these are pretty familiar situations. I have stopped taking public transportation for sometime, but I can’t stop walking in the street, can I?
Today in the Tunisia’s second republic, the situation is even worse! I am facing another form of sexual harassment from the fundamentalists. It is a total abuse to my existence as woman objectified in my body, behavior and attire.
We speak today about democracy and transitional justice. However, there is no democracy without equality and there is no equality when women are so scared that they avoid public spaces, which are still dominated by a patriarchy that finds satisfaction in the objectification and intimidation of women!
Dr. Deena Dajani, Visiting Fellow, The Open University. Writing as a volunteer on the La Sharaf Fil Jareemah movement, Amman – Jordan
Sexual harassment – when recognized – is at times attributed to the problem of “loitering young men,” the extension of this view being that if these young men were removed from public spaces, (and indeed some malls and markets have adopted this ridiculous prescription) sexual harassment would cease. It is my view that such claims are dangerously reductive; they produce sexual harassment as a mere “annoyance” that can be ridden of. More so, they fail to recognize how sexual harassment is not about “annoyance”, but is a method of systematically controlling female bodies in public. By this I mean to say that sexual harassment intentionally makes women uncomfortable when in public spaces, like the street, so that their “homes” remain their clearly assigned spaces of comfort.
It doesn’t end there. Sexual harassment is also a political strategy used to silence women when they [dare!] question this divide between the home and the street. I feel that the use of sexual harassment as a political strategy for controlling dissent is not given enough space in discussions of the issue, and so, in the space remaining, I would like to give an example to demonstrate my claim.
On the 26th of June, 2012 over 200 activists – of various ages, genders and dress codes – stood silently side by side on the pavement of Queen Alia Street in Amman during rush hour as cars drove by holding white A4 papers on which they expressed, in the vernacular, the ways in which the gendering of political and social life stigmatizes and marginalizes, excludes and dominates. “I can/will speak my thoughts” read one, and another, “My honor is between my ears” [not my legs]. “I am Abu Rahaf,” read a placard carried by one of our volunteers’ father (Rahaf is his eldest while Mohammad, his son whose moniker he carries, is the younger sibling). The feminist human chain, organized collectively by four local Jordanian initiatives, was significant in many ways, most especially for how it used everyday language to express what are everyday forms of oppression. It shared experiences, affirmed values, and imagined differently ordered social and political worlds. No hate, just resistance.
I was assigned a role on the “media team” as I was away when the chain took place, and I was sitting behind my laptop waiting on my fellow volunteers and ready to post on our various media channels images of the chain as they sent them my way. The idea behind this was to extend the reach of the chain beyond Queen Alia Street, and social media is a great way to do that.
I was completely unprepared for the reaction, and by that, I mean the insane number of deprecating comments that descended at unspeakable rates. The commentators called participants all sorts of names, questioned their ethical and moral character, and invoked their families for further injury. My mum had attended on my behalf, and I can’t properly convey the emotions that rushed through me as I was deleting comments made under her picture when she had gone for my sake, to support me as I imagined a different future.
By the evening, there were at least six of us deleting injurious comments and we couldn’t keep up. It was like a stampede. When we thought we had finally managed to get on top of things, we discovered that someone had downloaded all 300+ pictures of the chain we had posted, but completely disfigured the messages on the A4 papers the participants carried. With the pictures no longer under our control, many participants felt unsafe, and rightly so. We reported the users to Facebook, but of course it took some time until they were shut down.
In hindsight, maybe we should have prepared ourselves for this better, next time we certainly shall. But the story – difficult as it is – continues to serve as a reminder that we must always consider sexual harassment as an application that attempts to control and confine where and when female bodies appear in public. In this story, the application of sexual harassment served to politically silence those that question the status quo.
Majd Yousef, Digital Content and Publishing Strategist, Amman – Jordan
I have been faced with victimization of harassers and cruel blame for the harassed.
I have been working in media for 3 years, and we once did a project on sexual harassment in Jordan. I created an online poll with a single yes/no question directed at both males and females: If you witnessed a lady being harassed in the streets of your city, would you help her? I was shocked at the responses. Most of the answers were skeptical, meaning that their reaction would depend on what she (the victim) were wearing! I then asked people who were not involved in the online poll what they would do, and most men clearly responded that they would not help a lady being harassed unless she was wearing a veil because only then they could be sure that “she was not asking for it.” This was when I became furious! Society raises men to judge women by their dress! Not only that, but is also gives them the unwritten right to sexually assault them based on that judgement! Most of society, even if they don’t follow such standards, are complicit in making this grossly simplified “logic” acceptable.
I searched for the reasons behind high rates of sexual harassment in the reason for a very long period after the above mentioned study, and the especially sad part was that a lot of people would still blame the girl and her outfit for the harassment. But they are missing the point; This is actually not only an issue of insulting and objectifying women. Such logic also insults men, animalizes them, and strips them of their rational ability and agency. Societal ignorance and misunderstanding of religion are what cause this to begin with, as well as raising women to fear standing up to themselves and fear negative consequences of their self-advocacy, which stops them from filing legal complaints and accept the insult.
A few months ago, I received this picture from a person I worked with who was in Egypt at the time. This picture was shows a modestly dressed woman crossing the street with her veiled friends, and being followed by three boys, one who is reaching out to grab her. The harasser is a minor element of the picture, which sums up all of the contradicting beliefs and excuses that society uses on the topic. The picture actually shocked me left me stunned, not knowing whom to blame.
On a private and public scale, I think women are uncomfortable discussing this topic, and many find it to be taboo. Within their social circles, mentioning their personal experiences can be quite tough for fear of judgment. Publically, this topic is rarely discussed, as there are still blurred lines about what exactly characterizes “sexual harassment.” Is it physical contact? A “wink”? A “comment”? These are questions that have various answers from one social circle to the another, and among men and women.
If the one issue is that the term “sexual harassment” is still not clearly defined among women, another is that fighting against it is discouraged through a number of mechanisms. Most directly, a woman who has been harassed can be blamed by those around her for appearing “too sexy” or for attracting the attacker. This means that any woman who gets harassed is still not being seen as a victim but rather the cause of her own harm. Additionally, sexual harassment has been normalized: starting from their teens, it is considered “normal” for men to throw comments on the street, bully women, or cat-call. In fact, their actions are even encouraged, in some cases. Women, in these instances, are also non-reactive and rarely press charges, which might unintentionally make this behavior permissible.
In my opinion, this problem is one of the largest and deeply-rooted problems from which our society suffers, and one that we must urgently address. In order for it to be tackled, awareness and exposure to its harms are the first steps towards reaching some sort of positive change. What is required is to reevaluate our ethical and moral systems and try to come up with a unified view on what “sexual harassment” is, identify its harm, and execute harsh punishments on its perpetrators. Music, art, speech, politics, and media as a whole are tools to execute this change.
Lara Sawalha – Actress, Amman – Jordan
Men talk about their “honor” all the time, but it is just that: talk – empty words; hot air; nonsensical; devoid of meaning when taken into the context of the crimes that are enacted under that most hideous of banner of “men’s honor.” This dubious sense of “honorable” thinking is nowhere to be seen on men’s communication with women, the other half of society. Since the time of the prophets, respect for women and society at large has been written into every religious text, yet men do not seem to heed this message. It has been left to women to call for justice and zero-tolerance of violence against women in whatever form it takes, including sexual harassment. Society teaches that it is dishonorable to sexually assault women whether mentally or physically, on the street, in the home, or on the battlefield. Just when are men going to understand this universal message? Women understand only too well the true meaning of honor, and, as in the recent incident of sexual harassment in Irbid, we hold our heads in shame. What went wrong with the advent of the IT revolution? Society can only truly aspire to be honorable when women are treated equally to men… globally.
In 2002, two friends and I were walking by Abdoun Circle when I vocally dismissed some guy who had made a loud and obnoxious comment about us. Within minutes, we were surrounded by about 100 men cursing and coming on to us. I felt scared, but I also didn’t want to appear weak. I was frantically thinking of a way to escape from this situation. I made it clear to them that if they didn’t back off I’d scream and call the police, (I was the only one responding because I was the only one who spoke Arabic) but unfortunately they persisted! In the end, I punched the first man who was standing in front of me, knocking his glasses off, grabbed my two friends, and started running towards any form of flashing lights. We eventually hid behind the a police car and the crowd dispersed. I often wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t shocked them with my punching or found that police car.
My guy friend, Chris, once told me: “I think women are way too fucking lax about it. Every other day some girl is telling me about some guy at work who sends her nasty texts or some shit. ‘What should I do?’ Get him fucking fired! Ruin his life a little.”
I am the victim of verbal sexual harassment in Amman, which makes me relatively uncomfortable in performing daily activities, and because of this, I wanted to look into this issue and try to find solutions. I have spent the last 3 months researching for my graduation project, and working to find the perfect design solution that could help raise awareness about verbal sexual harassment of individuals in the streets of the capital, Amman. It is a problem that is rapidly growing, but that remains relatively unnoticed both by the authorities and the community as a whole – it has become an acceptable “norm.” Street sexual harassment challenges the normality of day to day life activities of the harassed individuals, restricting their potential in the community, and ultimately limiting their role in it. to the point that they might not take part in Ammani life or avoid participating completely. What is even more dangerous is the fact that most of the time the community blames the harassed for the way they dress, talk, and walk, instead of addressing the roots of the problem.
Afrah Naser, Yemeni blogger and journalist, Sweden (Translated by Yara Fadel)
I am not ashamed to admit that I have suffered and still suffer from sexual harassment.
I believe that it is a norm in Yemen and in the Arab World that females do not discuss the topic or their own experience with it. Females are bound not to express their feelings towards this horrible act. But I have been sexually harassed, and I am here to express my feelings towards it.
I was just a child he first time I was ever sexually harassed,twelve years of age. I was sitting peacefully on a public transportation seat in Sanaa, when suddenly I felt someone grab my behind. I was surprised and could not fathom why he touched my behind exactly. Seconds later, I was overwhelmed with fear, and began freaking out. His hands were slowly caressing me. When I turned to look at the man was sitting behind me, and I just stared at him, because this was the first time I ever experienced such a thing. The man was surprised and confused. In that moment, men had transformed from humans to monsters in my eyes. This man was probably a “normal” man with a wife, kids, and siblings, but I could not see that. I said and did nothing, silenced by terror. .
After that incident, my long journey with sexual and verbal harassment begun. It happened on the street, during school and university days, and even at my work as a journalist, which pushed me to work out of office continuously. The fear of facing sexual harassment was growing in my head each day, to the extent that this fear remained even when I left Yemen, got on planes, trains, public transportation, or even in a personal car. I was constantly overwhelmed by the thought that someone will grab my behind. All those thoughts were just fear – nothing ever happened.
Over the years, an important aspect of my personality started to flourish: feminism for women in the world, but especially for those in Yemen. I became more aware of the obstruction of women’s basic rights, including the right to feel secure while in public places. I realized that I must do my best to prevent harassment and to refuse the norm that forbids females from discussing harassment. I decided to start with myself.
One December day back in 2010, I took public transportation and was harassed the same way the man who harassed me when I was 12 years old did. His hand was cold – it was winter anyway – and he slowly grabbed my behind. I waited for a matter of seconds, then said: “This is it! You are worthless! If you don’t get off, I will commit a crime! Leave my behind, you psycho!” The man, along with everyone on the bus was confused. I pretended to be strong, but on the inside I was still terrified. My reaction was far from the norm I mentioned at the beginning; females are not supposed to discuss sexual harassment let alone react to it. That man and I had an argument and he eventually got off the bus. I stayed, feeling victorious. Rights, I realized, must be obtained, no matter the cost.
It has been a long time since that incident, but watching the movie 678 about sexual harassment in Egypt lately, and awakened painful memories. While watching, I realized that I still suffer from complications of my harassments with regard to my personality and my general view of men.
I am 29 years old and still live in Yemen, and I full-heartedly say that sexual harassment is a crime that must be punished by law.
We were always taught to ignore street harassment: “If you tell him off, he will feel self-gratified since you acknowledge his existence… He doesn’t care if your reaction to his catcalls are positive or negative, as long as you make him feel he exists. Just ignore him. Stare straight ahead. Walk it off.”
I listened to my elders and followed the technique above until one day many years back I just couldn’t shut up anymore. That day, in my coldest, calmest voice, I stopped dead in my tracks across from a group of sneering construction men and told them to have some respect or I will call the cops. They were shocked. From the looks on their faces that day, I realized that they were used to their lewd remarks going unacknowledged. Ignored. Mtannasheen. If no one tells you it’s wrong, how would you know? Immediately, they turned their backs and furiously went back to work, embarrassed. I have never kept my mouth shut after that incident. And it works every time.
Q: Does sexual harassment take other forms? How is it so in Jordan or your own country?
Laila Demashqieh, Business development manager at Orient Spirit Development, Amman – Jordan
Sexual harassment is not the problem but rather a symptom of the problem, which is and has always been sexual repression. As a patriarchal, chauvinistic society, our entire outlook toward sexuality and – by extension – the female body, is fundamentally unhealthy. A patriarchal society thrives on the principle of the strong preying on the weak, which in turn places women (who are generally physically weaker than men) on a lower level. This is why women in our culture are objectified; be it as vehicles for sexual pleasure, reproduction or – at best – homemaking. This has led to the establishment of rigid systems of sexual control as we try to repress sexuality in general and, in turn, subjugate and control the female half of society through religious fundamentalism, tribalism and other self-destructive institutions. Men who engage in sexual harassment are often brought up on such ideals – that it is a sign of masculinity and cultural balance to overpower their female counterparts. Eventually, these attitudes create an unconscious resentment toward women, as not only are they seen as unattainable objects of desire but also as a threat to the man’s “honor” or pride. As a result, many men begin exhibiting aggressive sexual behavior toward the women outside their family or tribe while working consistently to preserve the honor of those within their tribe through suppression and domestic violence.
Solving this problem without addressing its core causes will achieve very little. As a culture, we must promote a healthier attitude toward sexuality and gradually redefine the way it is perceived. Today, sexuality is seen as a threat to social integrity. Instead, we must educate the masses to view sex as exactly what it is: a natural expression of human intimacy. This would be the first and most critical step in a long journey of social reform that will eventually allow us to establish true equality between the men and women of our community.
Merna Thomas, Cairo based journalist and social activist, Cairo – Egypt
My Vagina, Your Vagina, Our Vagina.
It is also known as العرض in Egypt, a euphemism used to describe the female sexual organ in question, and synonymous for “Honor” (a tired concept by now). What happens when my honor, I mean vagina, becomes “our” vagina? Then we must all protect “our” vagina! We must not let it out of our sight, “it” cannot sleep outside the house alone, it cannot travel alone, and it must not speak/meet men unaccompanied!
Naturally, when everyone has a stake in this small, but prime, piece of real estate – problems arise. The conflicts start roughly at the age of puberty, probably peak during adolescence, and plateau into “normalcy” by the time a woman reaches adulthood.
“يا بنتي إنت مش ملك نفسك” … OK!!
Having already established that women are not allowed ownership over their own bodies, any assertion of individual (female) autonomy is met with force. You want to work? You want to travel? You want to love? Violence grows naturally as a consequence of these values that both men and women are raised on in Egypt. Families practice it on their daughters, husbands on their wives, until it translates into collective societal action that culminates into legislation that makes marital rape legal, honor killing an act of self-defense, and, conversely, criminalizes consensual sexual acts outside of marriage.
But we are rebelling. Though it may have failed to rule politically, the Egyptian revolution of January 2011 successfully started a debate over women’s rights – a cultural revolution of sorts. Because patriarchy is a tired old dog – I highly doubt it will be able to survive what is coming next. Little do they know what we have in store for them.
Rooj Alwazir, Co-founder of Support Yemen Media, Sana’a – Yemen.
Sexual harassment is an already underreported issue. The experience of getting sexually harassed is not something people often like talking about, and it has always been very difficult to find out who and how many victims there are. But regardless of the statistics, I don’t think sexual harassment is confined to gender or to society’s perception of “normal couples” (that of women with men and men with women). I think those in same-sex relationships have been subjected to similar experiences. Maybe what we need is to completely rethink our assumptions about sexual harassment and what that looks like, especially because society’s belief is that men are always the perpetrators and women are always the victims. It’s a lot more than just that.
Yasmine Hamdan, Singer, Lebanon/France
Some people (men/women) believe that others deserve to be harassed, or are “calling/begging for it,” or blame the victim rather than the other way around. What can you respond to these assertions? What can you respond to this kind of discourse? It’s not serious! It does not even have the necessary level of intellect to argue against. It encourages stupidity, violence, harassment, discrimination, corruption etc.
I would rather sing Leonard Cohen’s song, Hallelujah!