Harassment is universal

I do not know a single woman who hasn’t experienced sexual harassment at least once in her life. Since my first year of secondary school, I have been subject to cat calls, predatory stares and gropes and became acutely aware of society’s over-sexualisation of the female body. At too young an age, I became conscious of the attention my body attracted and as a result, altered my behaviour and started to see my form as a source of shame which needed to be hidden. ‘Covering up’ is a part of my family’s culture – not something I inherently disagree with – I understand the religious (cultural, fashionable etc.) statement it makes but a lot of its initial enforcement came about by repeating the societal mantra that my body would instigate unwanted sexual advances and give others the ‘wrong image’ of myself. At the age of 12, during an ad-hoc water fight I became drenched and as my clothes clung to me, I remember feeling shameful and violated as a man of at least 30 unabashedly stared at me in a predatory manner until I was out of his sight. Being cat called and ‘beeped at’ in my school uniform on the way home became normal and expected. As my bust and hips grew, I slowly became conscious of my walk and how it would attract attention – for years I tried to train myself not to ‘swish’ until a good friend pointed out my odd, unnatural gait at university.

Men are sometimes unaware of how intimidating they can appear – many will not understand that a woman almost always returns home with a slight fear of rape in the back of her mind whilst watching out for the men that walk too closely to her at night. We are repeatedly told to walk with our keys between our fingers, to cross our legs to keep our dignity, tread lightly in our heels at night for their sound might attract attackers and to watch how we dress because that will be the reason as to why we were harassed and another woman wasn’t. No matter how minor the case of harassment in comparison to others, it is unhealthy to trivialise one’s experience – every incident I have had of this nature has affected me and left me feeling dirty and unhappy. When a man insults another man, they can expect consequences but when a woman is insulted, they expect impunity – whether for fear of her safety or because it happens so often, harassment has become a generally unrebutted, expected and accepted part of a woman’s life. When a woman does respond, she is labelled hysterical or melodramatic.

If I feel uncomfortable with your inappropriate, uninvited remarks, I have the right and a duty to respond to your harassment.

In not doing so; it reaffirms society’s acceptance of vile behaviour, it is sometimes misconstrued as an invitation for more or makes the victim feel as though they are the reason for the misconduct of others. I believe that part of the solution lies in school education which can combat the kind of sexist behaviour children find themselves surrounded with. Girls need to be told that they are in a position to fight harassment and boys need to be taught what harassment is and that they also have a duty to battle it. What women contend with daily is rarely acknowledged as a violation of their rights and I believe it is cruel and criminal to rationalise or trivialise their experiences. I am lucky enough to live in a fairly open community where I feel safe, comfortable and accepted but I understand that many women who live only minutes away, experience worse on a daily basis. If you are harassed and you feel comfortable enough, I encourage you to speak about it with the men and women in your life and only this way will we see the advancements we have made so far, go further.

This was written in honour of International Anti-Street Harassment Week. For more info click here.

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4 Comments

  1. One of the things that bothers me the most when I go to the Middle East is that women are expected to cover up and be modest because MEN “cannot help themselves”. It becomes our problem to deal with, and that is RIDICULOUS. Each person is responsible for their own actions, and women should not have to change their behavior so that men have an easy excuse. They should be educated, as you said, to respect women from a young age, and women should be raised to expect that respect. Any female who has ever been in the Middle East can probably relate to this article, thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Becky,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, it’s true that patriarchy has its own strain in the Middle East – particularly when it comes to clothing. This article, however, was written mainly about my experience as in the UK and a little in the Middle East. Whether wearing school gym skirts or a floor length dress over here to wearing fitted jeans or a headscarf over there, women will never be free from harassment without a the destruction of the globalised social conditioning that allows it to exist.
      Let’s hope we see the beginning of this revolution in schools sooner rather than later.

      1. Fair point, pretty biased of me to assume you just meant over in the Middle East, especially when I’ve seen more than enough harassment of women in Westernized countries. Pardon me for that assumption and thank you for pointing that out!

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