The Start of a conversation
A month or so ago, Pandora’s Box exploded across social media in Egypt, catapulting a very interdict subject in the region, into the spot light, causing a Tsunami of shock waves through our ‘conservative’ society that pleads ignorance, but in fact, are masters at turning a blind eye or burying their heads in the sand to avoid it all together. The sexual harassment case of an accused serial harasser, blackmail and rapist sent a surge of shock and disbelief across the nation and ignited a conversation about a very taboo subject, Sexual Harassment. It opened a flood gate. Girls and women of all ages have been breaking their silence about uncomfortable, humiliating, degrading, embarrassing and traumatic firsthand accounts that have happened to them on a daily basis in anonymous testimonies of what occurs on a daily basis when they leave their homes to go about their day. This subject has forced people to see how stressful it can be to be a woman in the region. Something as simple as just leaving the house, can be very stressful. It has also shattered many misconceptions and made many feel uncomfortable with the naked truth of what goes on in broad daylight right in front of their noses. It has enlightened what really goes on in the streets and in some instances, in homes behind closed doors.
What has been most shocking in the past few weeks is the lack of understanding in what ‘Sexual Harassment” actually is and how men AND women, blame the victims for being in the situation. Many were under the illusion that harassment came only in the form of physical assault. When in reality it has many degrees and levels. Each of which are very traumatic for the person being harassed. So, let’s clear something up…
WHAT IS HARASSMENT?
Harassment comes in many forms, it can be how someone looks at another individual in an unwanted suggestive sexual leering way, making them feel very uncomfortable and fear for their safety. The look in the harassers eyes are intense, making clear what’s running through their mind in their targeted stare. A second example can be in comments, otherwise known as ‘Cat Calling”, The person who is calling out, might think they are paying a compliment, flirtatious or even funny, but in reality are, insulting,degrading, belittling, humiliating and/or of a sexual nature. Another form is being followed by a person(s) without giving any hint of interest or consent. A person sending indecent photos and texts is another form of harassment. Requesting sexual favors and pressuring someone to do it and trying to blackmail them into carrying out any act by using fear, is harassment. Sexual Assault is unwanted touching of ANY kind, here are a few examples; When a person is minding their own business, keeping to themselves and suddenly they’re being grabbed, groped, touched inappropriately without consent, that is considered a physical sexual assault. The assault everyone seems to know is rape. It’s THE absolute worst kind, the most violating and traumatic. Rape is when someone has unconsented sex with another individual by force in a conscious or an unconscious state.
These are just some of the many forms of types of harassment and assaults. If you would like to know of more you can click on the link here.
An ignorant misconception that this case has dissolved is that it ONLY happens in lower economic classes and carried out by uneducated people. When in reality, a harasser can be anyone from any level of the social pyramid. It isn’t class or economic orientated, it’s everywhere. A harasser doesn’t look like a boogie man or the ‘evil’ character you read about in stories. They look like the average person and it could be someone you know well, a ‘respected’ member of the community or a stranger. A harasser can be male or female.
The third myth that is being exposed is that, “Women are at fault and that they are the ones who trigger the harassment or assaults.” As Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian Satire Comedian stated in one of his Instagram account, “The ONLY reason there’s harassment, is because of the harasser”. Omar Samra an Egyptian Mountaineer also made clear in a post to his Instagram account, that ‘harassment isn’t an illness and to stop using it as an excuse’. Woman, are NOT the cause of harassment. Some may argue that women’s garments are the trigger behind a harasser’s impulsive behavior and mal intent and just can’t control themselves! Excuse my language but that is a truck load of B.S! If that was the case, then why do veiled and fully covered, Munukkaba women get harassed just as much as non-veiled women? Why can men control themselves more when they are abroad? It’s because here, they know they can get away with it because “They Are Men and Have Needs.”
A fourth myth that is being killed, is that women want it and that we invite it to happen. Who in their right mind would? That is INSANE!! How anyone can justify or believe such a blatant lie is beyond my comprehension! We are not sexual objects, and whose only purpose is to procreate. Women are living beings, we have souls, we are intelligent, we have feelings and we are STRONG.
More times than I care to remember or recall, I have experienced both sexual harassment and assault. My family and I lived in a neighboring country in the Middle East and we respected the dress code when we left the compound.My earliest memory was when I was about 10 years old. My family and I were at the mall and I was holding my father’s hand, while my mum and sister were looking at a display in a shop window. I was aimlessly staring at the ground when I noticed a pair of feet walking towards me. I could see that they were coming straight for me, so I moved out of the way and stood behind my father to avoid the person as they passed their hand brushed against me. Once they passed, I went back to standing next to my dad. The individual did a U-turn and came back round for a second attempt. I looked up and saw him staring at me with intent focus, with a wild look in his eye, like you’d see in a lion intent on catching its prey. He came towards me again and again I moved, but he anticipated my action and came closer, and put his hands between my thighs aiming for my crutch. My mind and emotions couldn’t process or comprehend what had just happened.
TELL ME I ASKED FOR IT!
Fortunately for me, my parents had instilled in my sibling and I that our bodies were ours and no one had the right to touch us and that if anything of the sort was to happen, we should tell them. I did tell them and as shocked as they were, that someone would have the audacity to attempt an act like that on a child in public and while standing next to their father, they believed me. Unfortunately the country we were in, protected their nationals more than expats, so there was nothing we could do, in terms of reporting the man. I did ask my dad to buy me an Abaaya (a long black cloak that many women in the Middle East wear). My dad refused at first, because he said it wasn’t who we were, that it wasn’t our culture, but he saw how distressed I was about the incident and wanted me to feel safer and secure when we left the compound we lived on. He gave in and bought me one. To me it felt like a protective invisibility cloak that would ward off unwanted attention and harassment. I never left the compound without it. I still have it to this day.
A couple of years later the Gulf War caused us to uproot and we moved to Alexandria, Egypt (my father’s home country and city). One late afternoon my younger sister and I were returning from the shops and I was talking to her about something. When I turned to look at her and she was gone! I looked around and found some older kid in his late teens, or early twenties sat on a large block, had grabbed her by her wrist and was trying to ‘talk’ to her. My sister was wiggling and trying to pull away from him and he wouldn’t release her. I went over to him and yelled at the top of my lungs all the insults that I was not ever to utter in the presence of family members. This drew the attention of many people and he was forced to let go and we legged it home and told my parents.
TELL ME SHE ASKED FOR IT!
My mother is a foreigner married to an Egyptian man and dresses modestly, with blond hair and blue eyes she can’t help but be a beacon for unwanted attention in this part of the world. My mum taught at the school my sister and I attended, we were walking home from school, it was very close to where we lived, when out of the blue a car pulled up next to the sidewalk we were walking on, opened the rear passenger door and told her to get in for 1LE. My sister and I were shocked and didn’t fully understand the proposition. She instructed us to keep walking.
TELL ME SHE ASKED FOR IT!
I was in my teens and I went on an errand to buy something from a store. I took a short cut down a side street that lead from the Greco Roman Museum, to Cinema Metro. I was wearing a long sleeve baggy polo shirt, and loose fitting jeans. I walked by a store that sold car parts and one of the men, came out and was looking at me in a very uncomfortable manner, but he proceeded to describe what sexual things he would like to do to me.
TELL ME I WANTED IT!
In that moment I remember clearly thinking, do I keep walking by and let him get away with insulting me, because he thinks I’m a foreigner and I don’t understand or do I turn and shock him by answering him back in his mother tongue so he knows that it’s not ok? I chose to turn around, that act alone, shocked him. In Arabic I responded, ‘You should be more respectful. If someone spoke to your mother, sister or daughter that way, would you allow and accept it?” His gaze fell to the ground and he said, ‘you’re right’. A small victory. I didn’t feel the need to tell my dad, because I felt I had dealt with the situation. Karma had other plans, the following day, my father asked if I’d like to accompany him on a few errands. I did and to my surprise he pulled up in front of the store, I had passed by the day before. The same man, I told off, saw me sat in the passenger side of the car and my father stepped out of the car, and began talking to him. The man turned a lighter shade of pale and you could see his heart plummet to the ground in shock. He apparently knew my father quite well.
Alexandrian winters are rainy and cold, so one has to bundle up in order to keep warm. In winter everyone looks as sexy as a polar bear (no intended insult to bears). I had just gotten back from university, it was dark and I parked the car in the garage, across the street from where I lived. I remember how I was looking forward to getting home to have a nice warm cup of soup to take away the winter chill. I was walking towards the main street when out of the winter darkness, a man came running towards me and slammed me up against the side of the consulate wall less than a meter away from the guard box and tried to force himself on me. With one arm I struggled to push him away and off of me. He was trying to put his mouth on my lips and face. With my other hand I tried to block his hands from touching my private parts and to hit with all my might. He tried to push his body on me, but I kept moving mine to avoid contact. “This is my body! You have no right! Get off! NO!” were the thoughts that were racing rampantly in my mind and fueled my resistance. He was stronger than me, but my determination to not give-in made him give up, because he knew that he wouldn’t succeed.
TELL ME I WANTED IT!
Believe it or not, that wasn’t the worst part. There were people watching the scene on fold. These people were the parking attendants, who knew my father, and who had known me since we moved to Egypt. When I was able to speak, I turned to them and asked in Arabic “Why didn’t you come and help me?” Their response was worse than the assault itself “You didn’t scream and it looked like you wanted it to happen.” I was in S.H.O.C.K. why would I want that? The struggle and fending him off wasn’t enough to warrant any kind of assistance of act of heroism? “I was hitting him! I didn’t want it and I don’t have to scream for help!”
I told my parents what happened and my father went and talked to the garage attendants, not long afterwards, he stopped parking the car at the garage. I didn’t see the attackers face clearly and I wouldn’t have been able to describe him well, to give a report or testimony.
Our lecture ended early one Sunday evening and as we came out to the main courtyard, the security guards decided amongst themselves that we had to get off campus, when we have the right to be there till 10pm. They ushered us out and locked the gate behind us. Two of my female friends were with me. I went and got my little car and parked in front of the gate for us to sit it. One friend was parked further away from campus under the bridge. I told her I’d drive her to her car, so she wouldn’t walk alone, because it was starting to get dark. My other friend went across the street to the pharmacy to call her parents to tell them to inform them we finished early and needed to be picked up earlier (This was before mobile phones). As we waited for my friend to come back from making her call, a kid no older that fifteen walked by my car and made some comment or other and walked on. I didn’t think anything of it. I rolled down my window to adjust my side mirror and wound it up mid way to let some air in (I didn’t have A/C). As my friend was making her way back to the car, I heard running feet from behind the car, I looked into my side my mirror in time to see the same kid, who’d passed by moments ago attempt to dive head first in through the half open window. He had both hands in and was trying to get his head in through the gap too. I used one arm to block the opening of the window and the other to hit and push him out. He was trying to force himself through the small space to put his hands on me chest and kiss me. I couldn’t find my voice to shout or scream for help, it had retreated. My friend sat next to me over came her initial shock and got out of the car and shouted for help “EL NAJDA! El NAJDA!”, no one came. It wasn’t for lack of people, people were around. There were a group of guys sat in a car not far from my mine, with a clear view of what was happening and were laughing. People passing went about their business as though we were invisible. He ran off when she started screaming for help. My friend who had been making her way back to us, was frozen in fear in the middle of the street and didn’t know what to do. When I composed myself, I got out of the car, with shaking legs and went to the university gate and tapped on the window the security guards yelled “What do you want? We said campus is closed! Go away!” I said it’s amazing how you can hear a tap on the window, but not when a girl is screaming for help. They asked what was wrong. I briefly retold what happened and their reply was “Maalish, Hassal Kheir” Which roughly translates to ‘It’s alright, no harm done’.
Tell Me I Wanted It To Happen..
Tell Me I Was Asking For It
I went home and told my parents and they took matters into their own hands, the police commissioner was contacted, I was offered police escort to and from university. The director of the university was contacted and informed what happened and I was offered parking on campus with the faculty. That was all well and good, but it didn’t solve the problem and it wouldn’t prevent it from happening to any other girl. I refused the escort and special parking, because I knew that false stories and rumors would fly around in a small city like Alexandria and I didn’t need or want that following me everywhere I went. So, I went to the Dean of Students and told her what happened, she suggested firing the security guards. That also was not a solution. I insisted that campus was to remain open until closing time and that girls were not made to go stand out in the street in the evening/night and for the guards to do their job. When I left campus that day the same guards confronted me and said “Mish ulnaa khalaas, hassal kheir?” (didn’t we say it’s over and no harm done?) I told them no, kheir didn’t happen and if it was your daughter or sister, you wouldn’t let it go. I informed them that I had the opportunity to get them fired, but didn’t want to cut off their lively hood so they could provide for their families, but I REALLY don’t want what happened to me, to happen to anyone else and not to kick students off campus. From that day onwards, I always had someone walk me to my car and watch me drive off.
I learned early on and quickly that I have a better chance of asking for help if I was being robbed than if I was being assaulted because the blame would fall on me. Why? Simply because I’m a female. Being alive is apparently reason enough to draw attention. I have tried to make myself invisible, I would not wear lipstick, I don’t wear makeup, I don’t wear skirts or dresses, I wouldn’t have my hair down, I learned to wear sunglasses during the day time, so my eyes would not meet anyone else’s and to have a scowl on my face to make me look angry and unapproachable. I have always dressed modestly, but I have to triple check before I leave the house to make sure I’m covered well. I make sure that my tops are loose fitting nothing is sheer and that I have a long baggy shrug or cotton cardigan to wear that goes past my waist. My shoes are usually flats and closed toe, so that if I need to kick or run I can do so with ease. I try not to be on the phone in a taxi or when walking. I don’t listen to music on my earphones, so that my senses are all on high alert. I took a few self-defense workshops here and there, to know a few tactics and moves to use just in case.
But Guess what?
It Still Happens.
We Still Get Blamed.
We have had ENOUGH!
We are starting to fight back
We are telling our stories
We are speaking our truth We are seeking justice
Laws are changing
People are listening
We. Will. Be. Respected.
WE NEVER WANT FOR IT TO HAPPEN! WE DON’T ASK FOR IT! HARASSERS BELIEVE THEY CAN,
So the next time you see someone being harassed in anyway. Don’t turn a blind eye, because that could be your mother, your sister or your aunt. Your silence is just as bad as the assault itself. Men enable other men, by remaining quiet and not speaking out against it and walking away or being a bystander when it’s occurring right in front of them.
You don’t need to be a hero. You just need to make some noise!
To all the mamas and papas out there start teaching and talking to your boys about how to treat women with respect. When a girl or woman says no. It means NO. Having said that, teach your girls that they should no longer remain silent when someone is disrespecting them and trying to touch what it not theirs.
National Council of Women Hot Lines
16000 (younger than 18) 15115 (over 18 years of age)
Anti violence against women in the ministry of interior; 011269777444 012595773333 01126977222
Association of Egyptian Female Lawyers : is a registered NGO with the Egyptian Ministry of Social Solidarity (#3236) with the mission of activating women’s political participation and supporting women’s legal and political rights that approved by national law and international conventions.
Cairo Foundation For Development and Law: 01279717326 (for legal support)
HarassMap is an initiative combats harassment everywhere, and provides access to lawyers if necessary while urging institutions to report harassment.