If  Virginia Woolfe Is Alive, What Would She Be Tweeting About? #BeIrbid

The Middle East’s and North Africa’s most respected voices speak up; sharing with us their experiences, stories and what they have to say regarding the case of sexual harassment. 

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(Picture: Near the area Balila, road Irbid-Amman. Razan is wearing Pants, 
Karen Millen. Ruffle top, shoes, scarf & accessories, all H&M.)
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“Sipping #tea #pen #paper #cigarette #lost in thought #Irbid #Escaping the city fuss..” I press “tweet” as my mind jolts from all these hashtags; stealing my attention and pointing me in the opposite direction of my original statement. I shut down my iPad and head to the fields seeking solitude, and as the windmills blew my thoughts to another place, I was quickly taken aback by people’s abusive stares so I took out my iPad and re-tweeted “#noescape #stares. A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.

The scene of harassment that night was “very unfamiliar to the city”. Last year, a video showing a large number 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. The Middle East’s and North Africa’s most respected voices speak up; sharing with us their experiences, stories and what they have to say regarding the case of sexual harassment. While My.Kali embodies the modern day Virginia Woolf, exploring Spring and early Summer days away from the stereotypes of the capital, and syncing with the realms of city Irbid.

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Photographed by: Raneem Al Daoud. Irbidian model: Razan Abu Leil. Make-up by: Amer AttaHair by: Ahmad Al Mshaeak. Styled by: Fadi Zumot. Intro by Farah Hijazi. Behind the scenes: Ala’a Abu Qasheh. Guided the magazine’s crew: Jawad Hijazi. Art directed by: Kali. Location: City Irbid – Jordan, details of locations included in image credits. Entries edited by: Walid Al-Zoubi & Omar El-Rayyes. Translations by: Yara Fadel. 

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(Picture: Shafiq Irsheidat, aka the university street, is one-kilometre-
long thoroughfare. Same street that the sexual harassment incident took 
place, July 2014. The city is a proud holder of the Guiness Book of World 
Records for holding largest local concentration of Internet cafes anywhere, 
more than 200 clustered on a single street in the city. Dress, shoes, bag, 
all Karen Millen. Accessories; multiple rings & earrings H&M.)
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Q: What makes a country more prone to sexual harassment? And why do you think these stories keep reoccurring 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. This way, by taking a collective stand against sexual harassment and assault, we as a society can create social and legal consequences that discourage harassing behavior and seriously reduce it. We as a society can create social and legal consequences that discourage harassing behavior and seriously reduce it.

We also believe that society sets the standard of normalcy, so if society continues to tolerate sexual harassment then it will continue happening with the same levels despite the laws imposed against it. But if society rejects sexual harassment and enforces a zero-tolerance policy against it 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 mainly as constant street harassment from unwanted verbal communication to cat-calls to stalking. I had couple of times where people followed me by foot or by car to where I live without stopping their attempt for a date but I would call it “sexual affairs”…the physical touch in the bus is totally unbearable when it’s full… I can’t forget where a man standing behind me in the metro masturbated and it took me sometime to deal with such situations from standing shocked to 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 are pretty familiar situations from my personnel experiences. I have stopped taking public transportation for sometime but I can’t stop walking in the street, can I?

In the Tunisia’s second republic today, the situation is even worse! I am facing another form of sexual harassment from the fundamentalists. A total abuse to my existence as woman objectified in my body, behavior and attire.

We speak in Tunisia today about democracy and transitional justice. However, there is no democracy without equality and there is no equality when women are scared into avoiding public spaces, which are still dominated by patriarchy that finds satisfaction in the objectification and intimidation of women!

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(Picture: The Prince Hasan Youth City's Stadium, located on the southern 
tip of the city, reflected on the sports movement in Irbid, and Jordan in 
general. It’s construction started in 1986 and officially opened in 1990. 
The stadium revert various facilities, and have that Olympic-appeal to it, 
along with its unique architectural style.Dress, shoes, bag, all Karen 
Millen. Accessories; multiple rings & earrings H&M.)
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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 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.

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(Picture: Irbid downtown. Includes some of the oldest and traditional 
restaurant… Palestine restaurant! Started in 1957, and part of the 
restaurants income goes to helping Palestinian camps and education and 
arts in Jordan. Dress, scarf, beige cardigan hung on the chair & 
accessories; multiple rings, all H&M. Bag, Karen Millen)
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Majd Yousef, Digital Content and Publishing Strategist, Amman – Jordan

I was faced by the retarded victimization of the harassers and the cruel blame of the harassed.

I have been working in Media for the past 3 years, one time we were working on a topic regarding sexual harassment in Jordan, so I created an online poll, the question was directed at both males and females, and it was a yes/No question: If you witnessed a lady being harassed in the streets of your city, would you help her? Then came the shock, most of the answers were skeptical, as in their help depends on what she is wearing! And that was my first shock because I went and asked people around who were not a part of the online poll, and clearly men would not help a lady being harassed unless she was wearing a veil because that is the only way that they will make sure “she was not asking for it”! and that was when I became furious that society raises their males to judge women by their clothes. Not only that, it gives them the unwritten right to sexually assault them based on that judgement with most society conspiring in an indirect way to make this simplified yet more horrific logic acceptable.

For a very long period afterwards I was looking for the reasons of sexual harassment in the region, and the sad part was that a lot of people would still blame the girl and her outfit for being harassed. But they are missing the point, that this is actually not only insulting the girl and objectifying her, it also insults men and animalizes them and strips them of the fact that they have brains and will. Yet it’s a case against ignorance and society and misunderstanding of religion that caused this to begin with and raising women to fear standing up to themselves and fear what others will think of them is stopping them from filing legal complaints and they just take the insult and live with it secretively.

A few months ago I received this picture from a person I worked with who was in Egypt at the time, and this picture was contradicting with all the sick believes and excuses that society tries to use, the harasser in the picture is a minor, and the harassed is well dressed lady among her veiled friends clearly not implying anything, the picture actually shocked me, had me stunned not knowing whom to blame, but then I realized that sexual harassment IS also women’s fault, the single women who gave birth to that male and couldn’t raise him, teach him how to behave, nor even taught him how to respect her as a women before respecting others.

 

Lama Zakharia, Radio Presenter and Program Controller at 102.5 Beat FM, singer at Tarab 3al 7atab, Amman – Jordan

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 and they might fear judgment.  Publically, this topic is rarely discussed, as there are still blurred lines about what characterizes “sexual harassment” exactly. Is it physical contact? A “wink”? A “comment”? These are questions that have various answers from one social circle to the other among men and women.

Other than the fact that the term “sexual harassment” has an unclear definition between women, fighting against it has been discouraged in many ways. Firstly, 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 as a contributor to her own harm. Additionally, sexual harassment has been normalized in so many ways. Starting from their teens, men who throw comments on the street, bully women, or cat-call are seen as very normal. In fact, their actions are encouraged. Women in these instances are also non-reactive and rarely press charges, which means that this behavior is reinforced.

In my opinion, I see this problem as one of the largest deeply rooted problems our society suffers from and one that urgently needs to be tackled. 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.

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(Picture: Camp Al-Husn; the camp was established in 1968 as an emergency 
camp to house 12,500 refugees who were displaced from the West Bank and 
the Gaza Strip during the 1967 Six-Day War. Dress; Karen Millen. Scarf & 
accessories; multiple rings, H&M.)
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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 banners: “Men’s honor”. This dubious sense of “honorable” thinking is nowhere to be seen when men communicate with women – the other half of society. Ever 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 themselves to call for justice and zero-tolerance of violence against women in whatever form it takes, including sexual harassment. Society has been taught 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.

It was 2002 and me and 2 friends were walking by Abdoun Circle when I vocally dismissed some guy who had made a loud and obnoxious comment about us and 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 and 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 didn’t! So in the end I punched the first man who was standing in front of me knocking his glasses off, grabbed my 2 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 frenzy or found a police car.

My guy 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.”

 

Jude Al-Amin, design student at The German Jordanian University and part time graphic designer at 7iber, Amman – Jordan

I personally am the victim of verbal sexual harassment in Amman, which makes me relatively uncomfortable in performing daily activities; from there I decided to look more into this issue and try to find solutions for it. Therefore, for my graduation project, I have spent the last 3 months researching and working on finding the perfect fit design solution that will help raise awareness about verbal sexual harassment of individuals in the streets of the capital Amman; a problem that is rapidly growing, but that is also going unnoticed both by the authorities as well as the community as a whole; for it has become acceptably “the norm”. Street sexual harassment challenges the normality of day to day life activities of the harassed individuals restricting their potential in the community, which ultimately limits their roles, to people who do not take part in Ammani life or choose to avoid participating in order to avoid being harassed or bothered. 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 trying to go back to the roots of the problem and solving it there.

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(Picture: A huge deserted water tank that’s decorated with bright-colored 
graffiti drawn by the children during Spring time, by Petrol Street 
located on the hills of Irbid province. Dress & shoes, Karen Millen. 
Accessories; rings, H&M.)
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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 in general that females do not discuss the topic if they were ever sexually harassed. Females are also bound not to express their feelings towards this horrible act. As the title reveals, I have been sexually harassed and I am here to express my feelings towards it.

I recall the first time I was ever sexually harassed. I was just a child at the time, twelve years of age. One day, 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. From the inside, I was freaking out and I secretly wondered why this person was touching me. His hands were slowly caressing me. When I turned to look, 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 a split second, men in my eyes transformed from humans to monsters, despite the fact that he was probably a regular man who has a wife, kids and siblings. In my eyes though, he was a monster. I said and did nothing, because I was afraid of that monster.

After that incident, my long journey with sexual and verbal harassment begun, on the street, during school and university days and even during my work as a journalist, which imposed me to be out of office continuously. The fear of facing sexual harassment was growing in my head day after the other, to the extent that this fear lived with me when I left Yemen, got on planes, trains, public transportation or even 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 in general, but especially for women in Yemen. I became more aware of the discrimination against women’s 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 terrified. My reaction was far from the norm I mentioned at the beginning; where females are supposed to never discuss sexual harassment. That man and I had an argument and he eventually got off the bus, while 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 awakened painful memories. I also realized while watching the movie that I still suffer from complications of harassments I have experienced. Currently, I am 29 years old and I live in Yemen, but sexual harassment has affected my personality so much, and affected my general view of men.

I full-heartedly say that sexual harassment is a crime that must be punished by law.

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(Picture: Coffee place 'Cup Coffee' in the area Balila. The place is very 
famous to those who travel the main road of Irbid-Amman. It got people 
talking when HRH Queen Rania of Jordan have stopped there once, and got her 
coffee while visiting the city. Razan is wearing a dress, Karen Millen. 
Shoes, scarf & accessories; multiple rings, all H&M.)
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Roba Al-Assi, Blogger of AndFarAway.net, Amman – Jordan

We were always taught to ignore street harassment: “If you tell him off, he will feel self-gratified since you acknowledged 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 self 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 being 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 shapes? How is it so in Jordan?

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.

Yes, vagina.

Also known as العرض in Egypt, used as a euphemism 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!

عيب.

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 autonomy after that 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.

 

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(Picture: Hofa, Petrol Street is located on the hills of Irbid province, 
over looking the city center and near the Hofa wind farm. An area Famous 
for Olive and Almond trees. Pants and shirt, Karen Millen. Shoes & 
accessories; rings, H&M)
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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 so 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 “couples” (that of women with men and men with women). I think those along with same-sex couples 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 some people deserve to be harassed, or are “calling/begging for it”, or blame the victim rather than the other way around. What do 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 with. It encourages stupidity, violence, harassment, discrimination, corruption etc.

I would rather sing Leonard Cohen’s song, Hallelujah!

 

The End

 

For behind the scenes footage visit our Instagram (here)

 

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