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:
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.
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:
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.”