Oct 17, 2012

Stop harassment: It's not sex, it's oppression!



It was Eid celebrations once again, Eid has become notorious for waves  of sexual harassment whether downtown Cairo or elsewhere, or even in other governorates which we hardly know anything about.

Things were different this time. Various initiatives and announced they are stepping up their response and trying to deal with sexual harassment. There were attempts to document and stop sexual harassment on the street and the metro. Moreover, media has covered sexual harassment duing Eid more extensively. Cameras were out on the street to capture photos of guys stepping their boundaries. More positively, the debate and writing on the ugly phenomenon seemed to have surpassed times past.

Did all those analyses capture the reality of sexual harassment? I don't think so.

"My dignity is my freedom"
Many of those who approach the subject restrict the etiology in one of two options: first, women's clothing and their lack of decent cover-up (these arguments sometimes extends to attributing it to the mere presence of women on the street). Secondly, sexual repression and frustration which our male youth suffer from.

In fact, I don't think these two interpretations differ much from each other; they're like two sides of one coin. Proponents of this theory hold that women are sexual objects, more like a magnet or a moving vessel. Since youth do not have the means to get married at an early age, they're sexually frustrated and beholding these sexual vessels (women) moving around on the street would provoke men and hence they have to take as much as possible out o that vessel to fulfill their needs.

Why does sexual harassment occur and why has it become to spread? Indeed our youth are repressed, but what type of repression? Most o us obtain education at an educational system that produces disfigured humans, unprepared to face life's challenges, and becomes met with unmerciful labor market. It's possible to give a lot of statistics about unemployment rate, but numbers won't capture the experience of seekers of decent jobs.

More importantly, are young people listened to? are young people invested in? how able are young people to participate in social and political life?  The rate was 3% before the revolution and I am sure it has risen but still far from satisfying. What do we expect after this recipe of marginalization and systemic failure? Frustration, violence and religious extremism.

The problem is sexual frustration or women's clothes. The truth is men in our society feel "emasculated". Men in our country feel oppressed. The oppressor oppressed whoever weaker than them. And we've had our share of it; centuries of colonization and decades of military dictatorship. Men take it out on women (ie the weaker).

Last year, I was part of a research team on youth attitudes towards sexual harassment. What struck me was the depth of misconceptions regarding sexual harassment. Although a lot of them denounce it, many thought girls are the ones responsible for it and even enjoy it. Dangerously enough, they show no understanding of women's experience of violence whether on short or long term.

Most of us don’t appreciate the sense of weakness, fear, and powerlessness that harassment creates whether it was verbal or physical. Most of us don’t appreciate that a certain gaze to a woman’s body could make her feel as senseless object. So what would it feel like if their hands reach out to her most private parts of the body with an intent to humiliate and showoff of power, and not for pleasure? If you wish to know more about such experience, you better listen to the women themselves.

"Control yourself, not my clothes"
Is there a solution? Of course. Our hope is that our people breaks free from its shackles and restore its dignity. Education must be reformed both in terms of curricula and methodology. Curricula must include human rights education, gender equality, and sexuality education. Youth must be truly included in all decision-making related to their lives; not just using them as window-dressing as governments like to do.

Many talk of increasing legal penalties. To be honest I am quite skeptical of such suggestions. We have a lot of laws that are just ink on paper without enforcement. Many talk of increasing police presence on the streets. This may sound reasonable, but what about policemen who actually harass women? What would encourage women to go report the incidents, especially with the huge trust gap between people and police?

Legislation is significant, but more importantly, society has to be engaged. The existence of laws expresses the state’s commitment towards a certain issue. Now we live in the time of the people, community initiatives are key to create change; and many of those have recently surfaced.
Other suggestions such as facilitating marriage or changing women clothing are quite preposterous.

Two more points I would like to highlight:

1- Sexual harassment is not the only form of violence women are subjected to in our society. There is also domestic violence, female genital cutting, early and forced marriages, financial violence, etc.  the root of those problems are not much different that harassment. These issues are not any less important that street harassment. We must not limit women issues to what she faces in the public space only because there are much more violations.

2- It’s only women who suffer from street harassment, it has become mainstreamed. Anyone who looks different or vulnerable is liable to harassment. Foreigners, black people, people who dress in a nonconforming way, people with disability, and the list goes on.

The first step in facing the problem is acknowledging it and dealing with it in a mature way. Safety and physical and mental integrity are rights to everyone without discrimination.

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