Women and Sexual Harassment: Reclaiming Our Spaces

When I started working in a big international organisation, I had my head filled with dreams and ideals, eager to partake in the global effort for human rights and humanitaran relief.
Right, that was before the director two offices from mine started talking to my boobs.
The worst part of this anecdote was that I later learnt that this very person was known for his “signature look” and that most young women to whom it happened would only shrug it off as a normal feature of older men when having to work with younger women.
Me included.
We should not have reacted this way,because it only encourages the normalisation of such behaviours. So let me make amends on the blogging day against sexual harassment and state the message loud and clear: looking at your breasts while talking to you Is.Not.Ok.
As aren’t heckling you on the streets, harassing you by phoning you non stop, online and offline behaviours that make you uncomfortable, or any type of invasive, aggressive, sleazy behaviours.
When you don’t feel comfortable in any given situation, then it’s not ok. See? Simple.
Sexual harassment has been defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical
conduct of a sexual nature when:
· Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or
condition of an individual’s employment, or
· Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a basis
for employment decisions affecting such individual, or
· Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an
individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or
offensive working environment.i

While this definition specifically refers to sexual harassment in the workplace, needless to say that it also happens outside of your office, and comprises attempts or actual acts of sexual assaults or rape, unwanted sexual looks or touching, cat calls in the street, unwanted pressure for sexual favours and the list could go on and on.

Women everywhere and in the Middle East are affected by this plague: you walk on the Corniche in Beirut and you get heckled (note: habibi, I’m not your ashta, so fuck off), you stroll through the streets of crowded Cairo and all of a sudden you notice glances and glares that make you cringe, you take the bus, and oh surprise, here’s an unwanted hand on your bum. There are too many, and yet not enough, testimonies from women who have been, and get harassed everyday on the streets of our countries.

While researching on this subject, I came across an interesting testimony coming from an Egyptian young womanii

I get harassed 100 times a day. I tried everything to stop it but it doesn’t stop. I wear loose clothes, I don’t wear make up, I spend more than an hour in front of the mirror everyday thinking of ways to hide my body. (Posy Abdou)

and another one:

I stopped wearing skirts, and stopped doing my hair at the hairdresser’s, I also stopped wearing make up, even my fiance asks me why aren’t you taking care of your looks as you used to do. (Reem Ibrahim)

These testimonies struck me because they dug deeper than the obvious effects of sexual harassment: the first impact an act of sexual harassment has on a woman is embarassment, fear and terror. After the immediate danger has passed, the real long time effects kick in: sexual harassment gnaw at a woman’s self confidence. She becomes less and less self assured as she walks down the streets or she goes to work, she hesitates before going out, her freedom of movement hereby becoming limited. Besides, feelings of guilt and shame start plaguing her, she thinks it’s her fault that she’s been harassed: this man has called me very bad names on the streets, therefore I must be a bad woman, my clothes are probably very provocative, I need to dress/walk/act differently. While her aggressor walks on freely, the woman survivor is left to deal with bleak feelings, putting her life in question, every day trapped in her own hell.

It’s about time this negative spiral changes. Women need to understand that it’s simply not their fault if they’re being harassed. This simple statement can take years for a survivor to integrate and fully admit.

This present situation is, as most social phenomenon, a social product: in a patriarchal neo-liberal society when men are taught since they’re born that they basically have all the rights they wish for, and where gender and all kinds of inequalities prevail, it is no wonder women get harassed. Since they’re not considered as equal, women fall prey to belittling behaviours aiming at prove one gender’s superiority on another. It’s neither a question of religion nor of mentality as it has often been said: sexual harassment happen everywhere, to different extents contingent to the social contexts.
The sexual harassment response should put in place support mechanisms for women survivors (legal referrals, psycho-social counselling, parole groups), and should also include advocacy towards state authorities to change laws and tackle the issue seriously state wise. While many structures should be women only,and while the whole anti sexual harassment movement should be women driven, it’s also important to involve men in the response, in order to make them realise how what they’re doing is harmful and the levels of distress it causes.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action of 1995iii classifies sexual harassment as a form of violence and calls on to governments, trade unions, universities, and all kinds of private and public actors to take appropriate measures to put a stop to it.

It is high time we uphold this commitment.

iA must Read, UN Women Watch Fact Sheet on Sexual Harassment http://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/pdf/whatissh.pdf

Please also check the Adventures of Salwa for great advocacy and education on sexual harassment in Lebanon 

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