Harass Me, If You Can

الأحد 02 كانون الأول 2012

By Raghda Butros

I could recount all the incidents of harassment I have faced in detail, but I will simply say that they involved the use of vulgar language, various forms of grabbing, and several vile propositions. These took place in random places, as I left my car to get into a shop or restaurant, as I walked from place to place around town. With time, I developed my own repertoire of reactions, ranging from shaming the perpetrator, to attracting the attention of others in the vicinity to do their part in shaming him, to swearing at him, even to slapping him. Once or twice though, the harassment took such extreme forms, that I was too shocked to react. I will say, however, say that while the harassment was both lewd and consistant, I never felt in danger for my safety, knowing that a few harsh words would usually send the harassers cowering into their respective hovels.

The really appalling part of my story with harassment, however, did not start till I went to university. As many of you who attended the University of Jordan know, there is an actual street connecting the faculties of arts and business which is known as share3 il-nawar (roughly translated: the street of the shameless). Notwithstanding the political incorrectness of equating gypsies with shamelessness, this street was the bane of the existence of most female students who, like me, had to make the long trek through it every day. The street was lined from start to finish with leering men, who would take pleasure in shouting out the vilest comments they could muster and sniggering at the impact this would have on women walking by. In this context, I rarely responded, because I was under the impression that I needed to respect the educational establishment I was part of, and refrain from turning my life and that of others around me into a daily swearing match. It also did not seem reasonable to enter into daily altercations with men who frequented the same university as me in the way I would fly-by-night random harassers on the street.

What strikes me as odd now is how and why I just put up with the harassment for the four long years of university, as if it was normal or even inevitable. It was happening to all women, the veiled, the unveiled, and the khimar-clad, and yet I do not know of a single woman, myself included, who reported this behavior, or even considered reporting it. The administration of the university was by no means a place of solace for us, and our relationships with our professors, even the great ones among them, rarely extended beyond the classroom. Truth be told, women also sometimes harassed other women, making snide remarks as they passed by. They certainly would not stand up for other women being harassed, because it meant they were somehow tainted. It truly felt that at the time that we had no choice but to put up with it. But now I see that we lacked courage and resolve. That someone like me, an organizer by nature, a person who had just come from four years in London where I was active in politics, human rights, and even animal rights causes, was muted and subdued, seems unthinkable to me now.

What lay at the heart of my silence and that of others, I believe, was varying degrees of the same notion. For women who came from more conservative communities in Amman or from Jordan’s other towns and villages, an admission of harassment may mean the end of an education. For others, it would mean that members of their family or tribe may intervene, resulting in a fight, the likes of which we saw even then, though to a lesser extent. To me and others, speaking up would mean embarrassing ourselves and our families, since it would mean discussing body parts, and repeating the vile language of the harasser. So, I self-censored about harassment, as I self-censored about practically everything else I was witness to at the time. Looking back, and it truly pains me to say this, the university felt like a hostile environment, where you were set up to fail rather than to succeed. I had some phenomenal professors, but they often were muzzled by what could and could not be said and done, and seldom took the risk of breaking down the many boundaries that existed. I arrived there having emerged from my typical private school Ammani bubble, and looking back, and I do not exaggerate when I say this, I believe I spent the four years in a state of post-traumatic shock, caused by the harassment, by the general level of education, and not least by the devastating bureaucracy. Many of my friends, both older and younger, share these sentiments.

Yet I did emerge, as did many others, much stronger for it, and much more aware – with a deep desire to find ways and means to advocate for and create change. In fact my lingering feeling was not that I was a victim of society, but that the people who practiced the harassment were. I railed at the blatant injustice of our society, where clearly only a few of us could access the opportunities to help us grow and experience new and different perspectives and ways of living. I left wanting to understand why, and how, this structure came about, and what I could contribute to changing it. That journey is a story for another post, but my experience lead me to the understanding that this issue, like everything, has two sides, and that blaming men and perpetuating the notion that women are innocent victims only feeds into the cycle of harassment and victimization. I now hold the position that all of us, both men and women, are paying the price for a system of social and political patriarchy that keeps us all down, but which many of us still believe is working in our favor.

Forward many years and today we have a group of women at the University of Jordan who actually spoke up against harassment. They did so as part of their coursework at university, which in itself is no short of a miracle. They dared to utter those vile words that are spat at them daily, and that would not pass my generation’s lips, except in very private settings, andthey stood out in public and held signs with those words boldly imprinted on them, with the support of their courageous professor. I cannot begin to tell you what a remarkable thing that is. To make the transition from absolute silence and shame at my time, to this, is a testament to many important things. It is a testament that despite all the setbacks, there are pockets of real change within the university structure – this is one, and there are several others. At the time I was there, we would not dream of discussing politics, even in our politics classes. Yet now, political discussions take place on campus in various settings. Students organize to make their voices heard on various issues, despite extremely tight intelligence measures. Women, even at the risk of increased harassment, dress the way they want much more often, as opposed to the various sanctioned form of dress we subjected ourselves to, and some professors are more willing to take the risk of being human with their students. This is all happening within the university, while outside, people are also speaking up – defending Dr. Rula Qawwas, who was dismissed from her position over the video, speaking up for the women and applauding their courage, and speaking up against those who would silence them.

The backlash that is taking place is expected, and comes not only from the Muslim Brotherhood, or the pretend progressive Amjad Qorsha, but also from everyday men and women. They would have us believe that speaking up against harassment is the path to sexual promiscuity and societal degeneration, rather than having the courage to admit that the very fact of harassment is a critical symptom of existing societal disease. Yet, even their response, as unthinkable to some of us as it is, is as a step in the right direction. It is the other side of the debate, and one, which is shared by many of our fellow Jordanians. We need to listen to and understand this argument well, so we are able to successfully hold our own against it. Some argue that Qorsha’s intervention encourages more harassment and oppression of women, and it clearly does, but his opinion is already widely shared by many men and women for whom the status quo seems to be the only way, and which they will fight to preserve even at the expense of their own potential freedom. The very fact that people who advocate for this position need to speak up in defense of it is also a positive thing, since there was a time not so long ago, when this position was considered the only one in public discourse, rather than one side of the story.

We are a society finally beginning to debate our most difficult issues in the open, and those of us who defend the right of women to put an end to harassment, or the right of any group to stand up against oppression and injustice have the responsibility to keep speaking up and acting in as many different ways as we can. I cannot go back to my university days and undo the silence, but I can add my voice to the many courageous women – and men- who are now willing to speak up and act. I now know – the real danger is not in speaking up, but in staying silent.

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