Sexual harassment is a constant problem, say Arab women

This Al-Jazeera report is two years old. So what’s changed in the meantime? Apparently, nothing:

Activists from 17 countries across the region met in Cairo for a two-day conference ending Monday and concluded that harassment was unchecked across the region because laws don’t punish it, women don’t report it and the authorities ignore it.

The harassment, including groping and verbal abuse, is a daily experience women in the region face and makes them wary of going into public spaces, whether it’s the streets or jobs, the participants said. It happens regardless of what women are wearing.

With more and more women in schools, the workplace and politics, roles have changed but often traditional attitudes have not. Experts said in some places, like Egypt, harassment appears sometimes to be out of vengeance, from men blaming women for denied work opportunities.

Men blaming women? That sounds awfully familiar. We already know what extreme behaviors that can lead to.

But even in its less extreme forms, sexism is a constant, life-ruining problem–and for the very women who cover themselves up the most, at that:

Amal Madbouli, who wears the conservative face veil or niqab, told The Associated Press that despite her dress, she is harassed and described how a man came after her in the streets of her neighborhood.

“He hissed at me and kept asking me if I wanted to go with him to a quieter area, and to give him my phone number,” said Madbouli, a mother of two. “This is a national security issue. I am a mother, and I want to be reassured when my daughters go out on the streets.”

So much for the assertion that hijabs protect the virtue of a modest woman. I’ve long known (from experience, yet) that the worst threat to a woman’s safety isn’t immodesty on her part, but harassment on the part of a man who thinks he’s entitled to whatever he can grab. And that sense of entitlement runs deep and wide in the very countries where women are the most covered-up. Covering isn’t protecting them; if anything, it’s like a beacon proclaiming to harassers who feel that women have no place in public life: Hey! There’s a woman here!

How bad is the problem? Here are some stats:

As many as 90 percent of Yemeni women say they have been harassed, while in Egypt, out of a sample of 1,000, 83 percent reported being verbally or physically abused.

A study in Lebanon reported that more than 30 percent of women said they had been harassed there.

Notice that the stricter cultures have higher rates of reported harassment than those where veiling is less common. Not quite what you might expect if you think modesty is the Great Defender, eh?

Rape and other overtly lewd acts are criminalized, but that doesn’t mean much when it comes to “lesser” harassments. And often, culture facilitates things for the harasser, while placing burden after burden on the woman:

Abul Komsan described how one of the victims of harassment she interviewed told her she had taken on the full-face veil to stave off the hassle.

“She told me ‘I have put on the niqab. By God, what more can I do so they leave me alone,'” she said, quoting the woman. Some even said they were reconsidering going to work or school because of the constant harassment in the streets and on public transpiration.

Where segregation between the sexes is the norm and women are sheltered by religious or tribal customs, cases of sexual harassment are still common at homes and in the times when women must venture out, whether to markets, hospitals or government offices.

In Yemen, where nearly all women are covered from head to toe, activist Amal Basha said 90 percent of women in a published study reported harassment, specifically pinching.

“The religious leaders are always blaming the women, making them live in a constant state of fear because out there, someone is following them,” she said.

If a harassment case is reported in Yemen, Basha added, traditional leaders interfere to cover it up, remove the evidence or terrorize the victim.

In Saudi Arabia, another country where women cover themselves completely and are nearly totally segregated from men in public life, women report harassment as well, according to Saudi activist Majid al-Eissa.

His organization, the National Family Safety Program, has been helping draft a law criminalizing violence against women in the conservative kingdom, where flirting can often cross the line into outright assault. Discussion of the law begins Tuesday.

“It will take time especially in this part of the world to absorb the gender mixture and the role each gender can play in society,” he said. “We are coping with changes (of modern life), except in our minds.”

And that’s precisely where the change needs to happen. In the minds of the men. It had to happen here, and it’s still very much a work in progress, as my most recent “Wankers” list confirms. Progressives combat the problem; conservatives protect and entrench it. The obvious answer, then, is not more conservatism in dress or actions; it’s progress and social change. And the men are the ones who need to change the most.

Meanwhile, women’s self-defence classes (I suggest Wen-Do) are a must. Men tend to think twice about doing it again if a woman lashes back. That alone is a good start to the mind-changing thing. If martial-arts classes for women were offered in Arab countries, I bet they’d be very well attended.

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4 Responses to Sexual harassment is a constant problem, say Arab women

  1. Cort Greene says:

    You have been at the forefront of this very important and pressing issue and thank you for reminding us just as class, race, gender and women’s issues are inter-connected internationally.
    I cried reading yours posts on this topic of abuse. Its a matter of life or death that some still blow off.

  2. Thank YOU, too–for understanding what’s being said here. It is, definitely, a matter of class and race as well as gender–women are often treated as an underclass and/or inferior race. It’s all part of the hierarchical mindset that too many people have, and must struggle to change.
    Of course, for some, that’s a terribly threatening notion unto itself, because when you lose notions of hierarchy, with it go all the previously accepted ideas of one’s own superiority, status, privilege, etc. I think the reason women’s rights are so threatening to some men is because they want to keep their privileges, at the expense of others’ rights. It’s just as it was in the 1960s when the poorest whites in the US south were the most militant about not letting blacks vote–the notion that black people have equal rights is a grave threat to white privilege. It’s the same thing with the men’s privilege vs. women’s rights issue. Realizing that one is not superior to the other is a hard lesson for some.

  3. Snarla says:

    90% of women in Yemen report sexual harassment. What is it in the US?
    I couldn’t leave the house without getting hassled in one way or another from the time I was ten to the time I was thirty.

  4. No idea…the stats I pulled up tend to put workplace harassment high on the list, probably because it’s the most-researched. But it’s not the only place it happens; as you say, it happens to school girls too. It probably depends a bit on where you live; if in the city, the rate of reported incidents may be higher simply because of population density; there are more men, and more opportunities for them to harass. The country’s not safe either, though; I can recall quite a lot of harassment too, growing up as I did on the edges of a smallish town. It was hell for me on the school bus every morning.
    It’s certainly a pervasive problem wherever sexism is, and here in the west, there’s no sense pretending it’s really any better here than it is over there. We just talk about it more openly, and have somewhat more legal recourse against it–up to a point. (Enforcement is another matter, of course!) But I notice remarkably little difference in the attitudes of western sexists as opposed to Arab ones; they all don’t like seeing women outside of a very limited sphere. The complaints of the women ring very true to me: I often wondered what I had to wear to ward the unwanted attentions off. I found out what a lot of these women are also finding: it doesn’t matter how conservatively you dress and act, you will still be harassed just because you are female, and because the harassers think they can get away with it.
    One thing that is heartening to me: People are talking about it, here as well as there. They are starting to acknowledge what we have had to for a long time–that this happens, it is a problem, and that something needs to be done. Harassers have to be made to realize that they will be held accountable, and that they can’t get away with it anymore–anywhere.

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