Elizabeth Stephens reflects on her experiences of sexual harassment in the Middle East.
I am a woman. I have lived in three different countries in the Middle East. Sexual harassment in the Middle East is something that I was told about at my very first pre-departure orientation in 2010, something that is written about in the news, something that anthropologists and social scientists dedicate significant portions of their lives studying.
I’m not new to cat calls and wolf whistles from guys on the streets – this happens in the States, in Europe, and I’m sure it also happens in (most) other countries. However, in Arabic the term for sexual harassment often denotes sexual violence.
It’s as if harassment is so common and widespread in so many of these Arab states that, even linguistically, it loses its value and its cutting edge. It’s when things get violent that they really matter. Below is a summary of my experiences in three different Middle Eastern cities – Cairo, Amman, and Beirut – and a brief account of how sexual harassment has touched my life.
Sexual harassment may be the 11th plague of Egypt. This terrifying epidemic has seen recent escalation in the post-January 2011 Revolution time period.
I am not an expert, but from what I’ve learned both academically and on-the-ground, this explosion of sexual harassment and sexual violence may be attributed to the lack of law and order, endemic poverty, and skyrocketing unemployment rates.
All this has antagonized an already sexually-frustrated segment of the male population who, because of these factors and in tandem with a social culture that precludes men and women from dating (and often interacting) outside of marriage, lack the financial means necessary to marry wives and later provide for these women.
I had the opportunity to be in Cairo before, during, and after the 2011 Revolution, as well as a year later during the first presidential election since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. What I noticed before the Revolution was that while cat calls and wolf whistles were so common that it became irregular and surprising when men didn’t shout at me as I walked down the street, there are so many people in the streets themselves that it didn’t feel particularly frightening.
I never felt that I was in any real physical danger or that my life was threatened. While the police don’t generally get too excited about anything in Egypt, as a foreigner I still felt comfortable walking up to one of these policemen on the street corners and asking for help, no matter the situation.
During the Revolution, the levels of street harassment were at an all-time low. Men and women were protesting alongside one another and the bubbling feelings of excitement and hope pushed away all thoughts of fear and anxiety.
As sexual harassment reverted back to its previous state in the post-Revolution climate, something else happened too. I don’t know what it was exactly, but my best guess is that the lack of experience in the new government somehow affected the state’s ability to provide an adequate police force (which you would think would be one of the top priorities in a new and fragile government).
As a result, Cairo has seen incidents of mass assault, gang rape, and other cases of gender-based violence in the very same square that was a symbol to the world of the strength and resilience of the Egyptian people – Tahrir Square. In Arabic, tahrir means freedom.
The only time that I was ever physically touched in Egypt was after the Revolution, during the presidential race that saw the election of Mohammad Morsi as president. Say whatever you want to me, but the moment some 15-year-old boy’s hand touches my ass, it’s time to call it quits.
I turned and shouted at him and asked him, in Arabic, if this is the way he would treat his sister or the way he would want his mother walking on the streets to be touched. He said no, then proceeded to slap my ass a second time before running off into the darkness.
Frustrated and angry, I tried to find someone to tell or some authority-esque looking figure with whom I might file a complaint. But the streets were empty, and I found no one – and I know that I am far from being the only woman in Egypt who has felt this way.
Unlike Cairo, Amman is small. The streets are desolate and empty most of the time, like a perfectly manicured little ghost town. I lived there for three months after being evacuated from Cairo at the onset of the 2011 Revolution.
In Amman I was surprised that, generally, the women did not dress as conservatively as they had in Cairo, where the majority of girls wear too many layers of clothing to count and almost all wear the hijab, or hair covering.
In Amman many girls also wore the hijab, but aside from that dressed like I did – in H&M and Zara clothes – as well as in designer brands at the apex of fashion. I found also that the men in Amman did not cat call as much and, on first impression, I felt that perhaps the sexual harassment there was not so bad. I later had to criticize and amend this impression.
In Amman harassment was not ‘as bad’ in the sense that cat calling on the streets didn’t happen to me as often as it had in Egypt. Yet, while this harassment may not have been as abundant, when it did happen it was scarier than anything that had ever happened in Egypt.
One of my friends was physically attacked on a bridge trying to get to school in the morning. I was followed by a car while in a taxi. My taxi driver, alhamdullilah, did some evasive manoeuvring and lost the car by backing into an alleyway with the headlights off in the dark.
Two boys tried to force themselves into my friend’s and my apartment. Walking alone day or night my friend and I realized that if we were harassed or assaulted, there was no one on the streets who would hear us, let alone come to help.
Beirut is a fascinating city. There is such a varied and beautiful combination of ethnicities, religions, nationalities, and races residing in the same tiny metropolis alongside one another.
Many people that I’ve spoken to claim that this variety is what creates such a messy political scene – you can’t have a Shia or Sunni or Christian president without pissing somebody off somewhere.
As far as it goes for being a woman in this city, I’m still shocked that I can wear shorts and a tank top out in some areas of town without receiving too many unwanted looks. Where I live (in Hezbollah territory), life is a little more conservative, so if I’m going out I throw on a pair of sweatpants over my outfit and take them off when I reach my final destination.
I can still wear a tank top even in Hezbollah’s stronghold, which is more than can be said for where I lived in Cairo. The last time I wore a short-sleeve t-shirt with a v-neck in Egypt a little boy on a bicycle had a great time throwing dates at me.
Sexual harassment here doesn’t seem to be as widespread on the outside looking in. However, as a colleague of mine pointed out, when men do stare they look at you like as if they’re hungry.
I don’t know if it’s me and, if so, what I’m doing wrong, but I have been physically assaulted twice since I arrived here three weeks ago – both times, not by complete strangers but by people I knew for a few hours and who I had just started to trust.
The first time might have been called a misunderstanding (if I’m being generous) but the second time, when I was locked into a bar by the bartender and had to shout “Stop!” at the top of my lungs, I find it hard to believe that there could have been any misunderstanding.
I like to be an optimist about everything, but honestly I’m just tired. I am female. This should not be such a troubling concept for Middle Eastern men to grasp. And while I have always condemned the foreigners who hang out with only foreigners in their little enclaves of foreign-ness, rarely ever interacting with the host country or its citizens, I am starting to understand why they do this.
I am more and more often beginning to think that it would be impossible for me to live in the Middle East for an extended period of time without losing every tattered shred of sanity I have left.
I miss not worrying about being attacked on a bridge or in a bar or being followed home at night. I miss going through my wardrobe and not having to think about the risks involved in choosing to wear a tank top instead of a t-shirt.
And the craziest thing of all is that I love the Middle East. I continue to crawl back to it, like an abuse victim to its abuser. But as my patience wears thin, all I have left in me to do is ask the men of the Middle East to look at me as they would a sister, speak to me as they would a friend, and treat me like an equal. My breasts do not change the fact that I am still human.