By Hena Zuberi
A touch, a feel, a whisper. It doesn’t take much to make a young girl feel dirty, stripped of her dignity. Walking in the streets of this Muslim country was treacherous. Going to the bazaar was not a fun experience. I remember getting my ears pierced – a memory so horrid. ‘Come behind the counter’, he said, I looked at my aunt, hesitant, he looked decent enough. That little girl in the video from Gawaahi.com could have been me. My aunt thought my tears were from the pain of the ear-piercing gun. My pain was something I did not even understand.
I was 15 – Umrah – and we were in front of the haram, the Kaaba the house of God, during Tawaf- I could not believe it. I asked Allah ‘why? why here Ya Allah’ – My father was right behind me but the lecher had no thoughts of his akhirah.
I was 16 – I had had enough! The yearly trip to Pakistan to celebrate Eid with my grandmother came with a big price – I didn’t want to go out on Chand Raat to get the bangles to match my clothes and kuhsse (embroidered slippers) -I was bigger, stronger and didn’t want to put up with it any longer. It is not a stalker – one person, it could be anyone – the tailor, the shopkeeper, that dude in the torn Levis or that older man with a beard. A crowded alley and someone, something brushed up again me and I turned around and slapped the closest male face I found! I didn’t care if it wasn’t the perpetrator – all the past years’ anger welled up and I yelled. The worst part was the look on other women’s faces, like I had done something wrong, broken some unspoken law – thou shall not speak, thou shall suffer in silence – it is your fault.
I was 25 – Cable channels had just started broadcasting a sanitary pad advertisement for the first time in the country, and one of the models wore a hijab. That summer was the worst summer – everywhere you went you would hear perverted creeps asking you if it was one of those days. ‘Ignore them’, was the word on the street.
I was 32 – I guarded my daughter like a hawk – if Chinese moms are tiger moms, I was a shaheen (falcon). I didn’t want her memories of visiting Pakistan to be filled with guilt, shame. I spoke to her about unwelcome touches, told her to scream out loud so everyone knows. “Don’t touch me!!!” To move away if anyone tries to come near her. At the lace shop, she played with faux crystals and and I stood behind her, staring down any one who dared think of touching my child, your child, everyone’s child. Just because I am on the street does not make it a welcome sign for you to touch, grope, pinch. I have the right to walk down the street safely. My body, my country.
It is imperative to spread awareness and talk about this issue. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Harassment can also include offensive remarks about a person’s sex, staring at length and touching. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman in the U.S. by making offensive comments about women in general in the workplace. If you are a victim of sexual harassment in the US here is a support group.
Stop calling it Eve-teasing: It degrades women further. This name puts the blame on the women and degrades the memory of Hawwa (AS). Call it what it is – sexual harassment. Why are we so afraid/ashamed to use any form of the word sex?
The Effects of Sexual Harassment on the Victim
The effects of sexual harassment vary from person to person, and are contingent on the severity, and duration, of the harassment. However, sexual harassment is a type of sexual assault, and victims of severe or chronic sexual harassment can suffer the same psychological effects as rape victims. Aggravating factors can exist, such as their becoming the target of retaliation, backlash, or victim blaming after their complaining, or filing a formal grievance. Indeed, the treatment of the complainant during an investigation or litigation can be brutal, and add further damage to their life, health, and psyche. Depending on the situation, a sexual harassment victim can experience anything from mild annoyance to extreme psychological damage, while the impact on a victim’s career and life may be minimal, or leave them in ruins.
This is for someone who experiences harassment at work – now imagine a whole country like this, where the minute you walk out of your home you fear that assault.
Most of us have heard the the reports out of Egypt, but this is not just an Egyptian problem. It is experienced in many Muslim countries. Many women in Muslim countries don’t even know that this is a crime.
Lets look at the stats coming from Egypt more closely. In 2008, Abul Komsan, the woman’s rights activist, polled 1,000 women from all parts of the country. What she found shocked her. 98 percent of foreign women polled said they had been sexually harassed. And about eight out of 10 Egyptian-born women said the same thing. She also surveyed Egyptian men, and almost two-thirds of men polled actually admitted that they harassed women. And before the holier than thou start preaching that this only happens when women are uncovered, no it does NOT. One of the most important aspects of this study was that it found that 72.5% of victims surveyed were wearing hijab when they were sexually harassed. It happens to all women, even ones that are in full niqab, under several layers of cloth . This survey may superficially shatter the claim that hijab does protect from molestation. But remember these were just 1000 women in a country of 18 million and the study was taken in an urban city. Anecdotal evidence suggests women may be harassed less depending on where they are, if they cover and as they age. I am not refuting the research but do think more research needs to be done in Egypt and in other Muslim countries, as well. ( I will examine the hijab=protection issue in another post, inshaAllah. Here in the U.S. I have never be sexually harassed after donning my hijab, maybe because the mindset is totally different or maybe the outer garment screams ‘don’t come near me’.)
Before the all is perfect in the West crowd pipes up – this a definitely not a problem exclusive to Muslim countries, either. From Mexico City to Chicago, this is a male problem. According to National Crime Records Bureau, the fastest growing crime in India is violence against women. Walking down the street, taking public transportation or having a career, all put women at risk for sexual harassment and sexual assault, no matter the city, country or continent. Catcalls, fondling, violence and indecent exposure are an everyday occurrence for women in the United States as well. iHollaback.org is a website dedicated to ending street harassment where young women across the nation share their stories and, if they’re quick enough, post photos of their harassers in this safe, online space. Gawaahi.com is the Pakistani distant cousin of Hollaback, where women are speaking about harassment and abuse.
What is definitely worth studying are the responses of the men in the ECWR study.
Perhaps nothing illustrates Egypt’s loss of a moral compass than the responses of some men in the ECWR study. Some said they harassed a woman simply because they were bored. One who abused a woman wearing the niqab said she must be beautiful, or hiding something. As a professor in Cairo, I see these misogynistic sentiments on display all too often. A woman is called a whore in public? She is seen as dressing like one. Groped by a man on the subway? She must’ve allured him beyond his control with aromatic fragrances and entrancing pheromones. An urban ambler exposes himself to a girl on a sidewalk? She was probably staring lustfully at him… a law can help but it needs to be accompanied by an ideological shift. Young Egyptians, both male and female, must be convinced that the burden of blame for sexual harassment doesn’t belong to the hunted. The guilt of sexual abuse, by logical definition, is the predator’s alone. Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at The American University in Cairo.
All the statements in the quote above are parts of the equation. Some cultures put all the blame on women, other put all the blame on the man. I think both genders need to take responsibility for this disease in society. I do not believe a victim is responsible, but the other women in the society are. Having said that, I do believe women need to use their judgment; just as we would caution children about sexual predators, we should remind ourselves not to be vulnerable and accessible, the two qualities that rapist and harassers look for. Men need to support their daughters, sisters, wives when they complain of harassment instead of forbidding them from going out or blaming them for causing the incident. Men and women both need to raise sons to be men who do not treat women like toys.
I. What can women do?
1. Speak Up: Talk about sexual harassment with your friends, family, colleagues, employees – the more awareness that is spread, the better. Break the silence, upset the status quo – it is your body. HarassMap, a project based in Cairo, plans to give women an outlet to report instances of harassment. Combining FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi’s mapping platform, HarassMap aims to be a voice for women.
2. Take self defense classes: Hapkido or street fighting teaches you how to respond to any attack. This form of martial arts works really well for women. For example, if an opponent were to push against a hapkido student’s chest, rather than resist and push back, the hapkido student would avoid a direct confrontation by moving in the same direction as the push and utilizing the opponent’s forward momentum to throw him. Here is more on Egyptian girls taking action. Both my girls take martials arts classes – I thoroughly believe in empowering girls.
3. Avoid walking alone: Team up with other women, co-workers, family members, fellow commuters.
4. Role-Play: Train girls and women to have a range of standard responses to harassers if anyone harasses them.
5. Use your common sense: Avoid areas when the chance of getting harassed is higher. Walk in groups if you can. If the harassment is really wide spread then take community-wide steps.
Why do men sexually harass women?
Rising unemployed, unmarried men, hanging out on the street are touted as characteristics of oppressed societies where the majority identify with the oppressor. If this happens only in repressed countries then why is it happening in our masajid in the US? If the men in Saudi do it because the country has gender segregation, then why does it happen on the tube in London? My initial reaction as a victim of harassment is ‘ If you want to get your thrills, go find a halal venue for it. My sister’s bodies, covered or uncovered, are NOT your playground.” But this is a deeper problem then men just being sick creeps – it is an attitude – one that is taught to men from a young age – differing in different countries. In some countries women are treated just as a sexual toy, just for the pleasure of men, in others they are the man’s honor, and in others harassment is just something to do.
1. Sexual depravity in societies across the world: Easy access to pornography, titillating songs, billboards and videos, acceptance of flirting and other changes in cultural norms, delayed marriages are all contributors to this problem.
2.Women moving in areas previously considered exclusively male. This article about mashers in early 1900s in the U.S. is so insightful. As changing demographics in Muslim countries this century mimic those in the West circa 18th century, ‘as industry supplanted agriculture, more single men were leaving their families for work in the cities. At the same time, more women were entering the public sphere on their own as shoppers, students and wage earners.’
3. It is a power thing: This is evident when we look at the current trends in the West- As women in the workforce rise and get into positions of power, sexual harassment cases by women of men have doubled since the 1990s. Given how accustomed women are to drive-by comments and propositions, it can be thrilling when the tables turn and they’re the ones controlling the dynamic.
4. Adoption of Islam just in rituals: Increasing religiosity in many Muslim countries has not come with stress on Akhlaaq (Islamic manners) combined with lack of adab and knowledge about ways to treat women, about the rights of women lead to this combustible situation. There is so much emphasis on hijab but not haya in both sexes. Picking and choosing of verses in the Quran by sermon-givers and laymen, to dominate and subjugate women so despite the apparent rise in religiosity in Muslim countries, the attitudes toward women haven’t changed but have gotten worse. There is also deep rooted hostility towards women based on misundertsanding of ahadiths, as well as resentment towards women who want to step out of the four corners of their homes.
5. The me, myself and I obsession: We have increasingly become a more selfish world based on instant gratification. Men think, I may or may not get the girl but at least I can get my sexual high of the day by groping her.
6. Changing ideals of manhood- more aggressive males are the heroes and the chivalrous protector image is considered old-fashioned.
7. Men just think its OK: Many books and articles about Gender Psychology have been written about the psychological differences between men and women. What a reasonable man and a reasonable woman perceive to be a hostile environment may be entirely different, according to PsychologyToday. If this is the case then men need to ask themselves these questions:
- Would I mind if someone treated my spouse, fiancee, mother, sister, or daughter this way?
- Would I mind if this person told my spouse, fiancee, mother, sister, or daughter what I was saying and doing?
- Would I do this if I was with my spouse, fiancee, mother, sister, or daughter?
- When a person objects to my behavior do I apologize and stop, or do I get angry instead?
- Is my behavior reciprocated? Are there specific indications of pleasure and not “she didn’t object”?
Another gender studies professor calls it homosociality – the need for men to impress other men. According to Dr. Schywzer, many men who become solitary harassers first learned to harass in groups. Harassment isn’t about sexual attraction to women. It’s not something women invite. And it’s not something usually intended to elicit a positive sexual response from women. It’s about one thing: impressing other men. One of the fascinating things about homosociality is that it doesn’t always require the actual physical presence of other men. When a man has been raised to always be conscious of how he appears to his fellow males, he may end up behaving in stereotypically hyper-masculine ways even when there are no other men around. If this is true, then brothers, you all know men who do this – for Allah’s sake stop them, let them know that you are not impressed. When we see men, Muslim alpha men reaching out saying ‘ hey that’s just not cool’, this behavior will change.
Definitely not all Muslim men are like this – there are many brothers who know, and who will protect you. Strangers who will help you cross a street, guide you when you are looking for a shop. These are the men who I am speaking to – you are our hope, our weapon against this enemy.
II. What can men do to stop sexual harrassment?
- Refuse to join in. Do not make any comments yourself.
- Discourage others from doing so. Tell them the person is not enjoying it or tell them to leave the person alone.
- At a suitable time, raise the issue about public harassment with your friends and explain why it is inappropriate to treat people that way. It is a part of the Mercy of Allah that you deal politely and gently with them. Were you severe, uncivil or harsh-hearted, they would have broken away from you: so pass over their faults, and ask for Allah’s Forgiveness for them. (Qur’an, 3:159)
- Teach young men, brothers, sons to respect women from a young age – my husband does not tolerate disrespect from my sons towards me or their sisters. Read them ahadith on honoring women, lowering their gaze, not touching non-mahrams from a young age.
Those of you who don’t stand up and defend a sister, a mother, a daughter, you share the blame. It is easy to shrug it off by saying that this is a part of their culture – it is incumbent upon us as Muslims to uphold a higher standard, nothing about harassment falls within Islamic values. Men are quick to point out daraja over women – a degree over women when it suits them – this is the prime instance to step up to that degree and take responsibility for the women in your society. This is your degree over women – you have an in that we don’t have. You can relate to other men, you can talk to them, stop them, shame them. Allah has made you qawmun alan nisa (caretakers of women).
If you are confronted with a street harassment situation here is what can you say:
- Do not address the man/group harassing the female. Experts say simply offer your presence.
- Don’t be loud and physically confrontational. You can simply distract the harasser by saying “salam” or just stay in open view so it won’t escalate to a rape scenario.
- Distractions and indirect interventions help best. Asking for directions, asking for the time, or other innocuous questions can often be enough of a distraction for a harasser to go away and move on, without causing a big scene or putting anyone in physical danger.
- Where possible, intervene by giving control to the target of the harassment ( “is he bothering you?” or “are you okay?”).
- Just do the right thing. I think there are times when a harasser may be intimidating even to other males, but you have to find the God given himma to stand up for women in these situations. Otherwise, it’s as if we are giving the harassers tacit approval to continue their behavior.
- If a woman in a crowd shouts out about being touched, be vocal of your support, say something like “Whoever did that, it’s not welcome.”
- Be aware of the situation, know what your advantage is, and if confronting a group situation, make sure you are interacting with the leader, contact the police ( in some countries, police do not listen to women but will listen to a man complaining).
- Don’t turn a blind eye, confront them even if it’s awkward, even if it’s not socially acceptable, do it anyways…Remember that many women are not in the situation where they are safe speaking up for themselves. Help even if the woman is antagonistic towards you – we are jaded at times because sometimes the ‘heroes’ turn out to be worse creeps.
III. What can Communities do to stop sexual harassment?
Lobby for sexual harassment laws: My sister told me about a sexual harassment case at work . She works at one of the largest ad agencies in Pakistan. Nothing can be done because there is no precedent. A panel was called and my sister and her colleges are to pass judgment on this man. This is 2011 – Muslim countries import every new fangled ‘Western’ idea while hating on the the West, but sexual harassment laws are too foreign for them. Pakistan has recently passed sexual harassment laws, but getting companies to implement and getting the police to arrest the perpetrators is the next mountain to climb.
- Take the report to local council people who are sensitive to women’s issues and discuss street harassment with them. Propose a law that fines men who verbally harass women in a sexual or sexist manner. Ask them to introduce it and support it.
- Meet with the local police departments about street harassment. If they do not already, ask that police officers receive sensitivity training regarding street harassment. Also, when surveying women about their harassment experiences you can ask them where they are harassed and create a map tracking this data. If there are problem areas, show the data to the police officers and ask them to have officers patrol the area.
- Talk to local businesses that have employees who work outside about the general problem of street harassment. Ask them to be proactive and to publish a phone number on their work vehicles and/or on a sign at a work site that people can call if the employees harass women. Ask them to post signs saying “This is a harassment-free zone.” (Street-level steps courtesy of StopStreetHarrassment.org)