Harassment and the Average JO

الأحد 04 تموز 2010

By Raghda Butros*

The majority of boys and girls in our society have no real contact with people of the opposite sex outside their immediate family beyond age eight, when they move to segregated schools. For boys that means no women friends, teachers, mentors, or authority figures of any kind. The women he “knows” are his family members and he views them in a certain way; the girls and women in his neighborhood are mothers and sisters of his friends, and therefore fall within the same category. The women he doesn’t know, understand or know how to deal with are absolutely everyone else.

Part of the problem of harassment stems from the issue of relating to and understanding the unknown, so that a man from a conservative community where most of the people are his neighbors and friends, would never dream of making a lewd comment about a girl or woman in his neighborhood, but feels quite free to do so in the street or in the mall or an elevator, where the woman is an unknown and unknowable entity. To his mind, the rules outside his neighborhood are different and though he doesn’t know them, he mistakenly assumes that women in this context are okay with being addressed in this way, because they are unlike the girls and women he knows, who would not be. Also, away from his immediate community, there is little reason to think he would be called out on his actions by a concerned neighbor, uncle or friend.

I do not think harassment is only an issue of repressed sexual desire.  After all, we all know for a fact that sexual harassment and abuse exists, and often to a greater extent, in the most sexually liberated of societies. I think it’s also an issue of not knowing each other and therefore not knowing how to relate to, accept, respect and live with each other as equal, but diverse, human beings. This is an issue of class and an issue of segregation at varying levels, which feed into a number of other psychosocial considerations, such as the desire to exert control, which may increase when the desired object of that control is mysterious and beyond reach.

In a debate on harassment in response to Shalabieh’s article “Breaking the Silence”, a commentator suggested that there is a difference between a compliment and an insult. While this is true, it is highly subjective and depends on the viewpoints of the receiver/victim, the giver/harasser and the society in which the situation takes place. In Italy, for example, men constantly call out to women to “compliment” them, and while some women appreciate this, others find it intrusive and offensive. What makes it acceptable, for the most part, in Italian society, is a general social consensus that it is harmless and not intended as a form of harassment or insult. This is not a view shared by everyone, and it may alter over time and as Italian society changes, but it leads us to another important point: the issue of general social consensus, which is necessary to make a society function.

To reach “a socially mature society…which will develop an ethic for shared public space that is friendly to the majority of society” as suggested by a wise commentator on the “Breaking the Silence” article, we first have to “know” each other. To genuinely interact with, understand and relate to one another so that we can reach a common vision that the majority of us would be happy to live with and abide by.

Pic 3This knowing doesn’t come from interactions where one is the service-provider and the other is the customer, nor from passing by each other in the street, but from engaging, relating, debating and building social and professional relationships with each other on a normal day-to-day basis. The knowing comes from desegregating public spaces, so that young men are allowed to mingle with and share spaces with women they would not normally come into contact with. While this may, initially, lead to some harassment, the reactions of the women, and a strict implementation of rules which control such behavior, will eventually lead to a more natural and comfortable situation for all involved. The knowing also comes from desegregating schools, at least at the level of the teaching and administrative staff, so boys and girls can relate to people of the opposite sex outside their family and neighborhood circles. It also comes from creating spaces outside school where boys and girls can come together to take part in extra-curricular activities and have the opportunity to form friendships and peer relationships.

Finally, the knowing comes from all of us making a conscious decision to move outside our comfort zones and our usual social circles and genuinely engage with and build relationships with people who are different from ourselves.

Raghda Butros is founder of Hamzet Wasel and an Ashoka Fellow.

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