Friday, August 21, 2009

The Groping Elephant in the Room: Sexual Harassment in the Arab World

About two weeks ago my girlfriend came home proclaiming: “I hate men in this country!”. This country is Lebanon and she hated men because in only one day her service (taxi) driver shouted at her and a friend: “bidkun taamalu sex” (do you wanna have sex) after he dropped them off, then a group of guys in a car commented on her bum, and some other guy was wanking in dark street corner looking at women passing by.

Having asked a bit around I couldn’t find one women that didn’t have a story of sexual harassment to tell. Narratives ranged from guys in the car driving by mumbling something about vaginae or asses, to service drivers that reach over to ‘curtiously’ close the door properly while ‘unwantingly’ brushing the breast of a female passenger, to the obligatory adjusted rear-view mirror to peek under a women’s skirt, to outright groping in the street and straight forward sexual advances by superiors at work.

James Gruber noted that there are cultural roots to sexual harassment. Practices and settings seem to vary from country to country. While here in Beirut harassment seems to be mostly verbal in nature, in Egypt physical assault seems quite common.

Sexual harassment is widespread and I personally know of stories from Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. A recent study by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found that 83% of all Egyptian women experience sexual harassment, and 98% of foreigners in the country, while 62% of man admitted to harassing.

Sexual harassment is the all present, all ignored elephant that nobody wants to talk about. Mohammed Ali Atassi of al Jadid noted on sexual harassment in Egypt, that it is a: “social problem that politicians and the media have tended to treat as an instance of individual, abnormal behavior. Because they treat it as an isolated aberration from proper social norms – falling outside the path, principles and traditions of a sanctioned way of life – Egyptian society as a whole does not need to confront it.”

This silence is also reflected in the academy. Literature on sexual harassment is vast and is made up of such diverse fields as anthropology, criminology, managerial studies, gender studies and sociology. However writing on this, our part of the world seems as good as inexistent.

Definitions of sexual harassment themselves are flimsy and cause much confusion. The UN Office of the Special Adviser Gender Issues and Advancement of Women defines sexual harassment as: ” any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favour, verbal or physical conduct or gesture of a sexual nature, or any other behaviour of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation to another”. Although sexual harassment can be directed by women and within one sex, hardly any man I asked had a story of their harassment to tell. But let’s come back to that later.

The Arabic term al taharush al jinsi (sexual harassment) has only been in use since the mid 90’s. Conceptualizations here also range widely and are influenced by class and levels of education. The Encyclopedia of Women in Islamic Cultures discusses that some women frame sexual harassment in accordance with Islam. In doing so they condemn sexual harassment as illicit behavior outside the sanctioned bonds of marriage.

A particularly disturbing instance of sexual harassment occurred in Egypt in 2006. Mohammed Ali Attasi described: ”During the downtown celebrations of the holiday of Eid al-Fitr, a crowd of hundreds of sexually frenzied young men participated in violent attacks on dozens of women, surrounding them in the streets, groping and even trying to undress them. As police stood by and watched the scene ambivalently, no one, not mothers nor veiled women, were safe from the mob”.

Reasons for this outbreak have been widely discussed by activists and across TV shows.

Some have pointed to the fact that Eid al Fitr, situated at the end of Ramadan, where man and women at least during the day have to abstain from sex, might have to do with that. Others have noted that overall economic pressures delay the age of marriage and thus of ‘legitimate’ sexual relations. Interestingly a statistic on Brian Whitaker’s al-bab suggested that Egyptians interest in sex is increased during Ramadan.

Outsiders have pointed to the suppressed nature of sexuality in an Islamic contexts in general, and the associated sexual frustration. Although there might be some truth to any of the arguments, in that in the West sexual harassment is very prevalent also. Particularly at the workplace. In the US for example 40% of all work related lawsuits are about sexual harassment.

Although it is good to look at societal pressures to explain a phenomena, sexual harassment is not new, not only prevalent in the Arab region. It’s seems universal and not completely about sex.

As a man there was always a question that bugged me about sexual harassment. I wonder if guys that call ” Shou, ya ashta!” ( Hey sweet one) or ”Shou hal ties” (what an ass) actually expect to get anywhere in terms of actually having sex with a women. I never heard of a girl that turned around and said: “yalla taffadalu” (be my guest). Actually most women here ignore it. They’ve normally been told by their mothers not to react in order not to provoke physical advances, and have therefore build up a thick skin against it over the years.

So sexual harassment at least in this instance doesn’t actually seem to be about sex. Also the fact that men here, tough I am sure that they have been approached in such a way that would fit the above definition either by older women, the so-called ikht rijal or by other man , would not qualify such behavior as sexual harassment easily.

Actually very recently a friend of mine, playfully touched my balls in the pool during a pool party. I told him that I am not into it, but wasn’t really appalled. If the same thing would happen to a women I probably would be. After contemplating on reasons for that, i realized it was related to our power relationship. Firtsly I felt superior in physical strength to him and could have waned him off by force. But also in terms of social status, he as an homosexual man is more vulnerable in the Middle Eastern context. I am sure I would have felt different if I would have been powerless or in the weaker position. It was our power relationship that didn’t make me qualify it as sexual harassment. The very same friend, however is himself being sexually harassed all the time, due to his effeminate looks, and the fact that as a homosexual he ranks lower on societies packing order.

Also the other above scenarios seem to point in long slumberian manner into the direction of power, which is backed up by much of the literature. Much of feminist analyses proclaims that sexual harassment is not really about sex at all, or at least not about sexual branks, misunderstandings, or miscues, but about power. Namely, the power of men within a male-dominated social and economic institutions to violate and victimize women.

Such scholars using widely differentiating methods, from a myryiad of disciplines seem to agree on three basic prepositions in relation to sexual harassment 1.) men sexually harass women because they are culturally privileged 2.) social mores and practices sanction their right to do so and 3.) organization i.e.society does not adequately protect victims or appropriately punish perpetrators. Although this vantage point has been criticised by another feminist camp that proclaims that such analyses: “betrays feminism to be largely populated by a group of victim-obsessed, animale sexual puritans who see a sexual predator in every man and who would thus excise heterosexuality from contemporary life” the three points seem to hold in an Arab context and allow us to explain the great prevalence of sexual harassment.

One, man in Arab society are still privileged, there is no two ways about it, despite Kandyiotis patriachal bargain. Two, cultural practices do sanction that behavior. Nihad Abu Al Qumsan, an Egyptian women’s right activist notes that: “Many perpetrators believe that they are acting according to an ‘old Eastern custom’”.The Muslim women discussed in the Encyclopedia of Women in Islamic Societies article were described to tend to see physical harassment as a problem while excessive staring and verbal behavior were interpreted as ‘natural’ or in ‘order’ with the biological nature of men. Interestingly I have found similar conception among some friends here in Beirut, that didn’t seem to see verbal harassment in the streets as unusual or even classified it as harassment.

Yet further, the public discourse on sexual harassment is normally linked to proper or improper behavior of women. It confirms the societal ambivalent status of women in the public sphere. There seems to be much agreement that sexual harassment doesn’t happen to ‘proper women’ and women themselves are normally blamed for sexual advances. Which is untrue as the above mentioned study found that women of all social strata are affected and that it is not related to dress ie. women that wear the niqab (face cover) are as likely to be harassed as women that wear mini-skirts.

Sadly, despite the fact that all evidence suggest that dress-code is unrelated to the advances, more and more women wear the veil only to protect themselves from such advances as the Encyclopedia of Women in Islamic Cultures proclaims.

The Eid al Fitr instance for example was deliberately exploited by religious conservatives to re-moralize the public sphere. Atassi talks about a poster campaign that followed the instance. He writes: “The second poster continues the theme of objectifying woman, likening her to a piece of candy ready to be eaten, by portraying her as a lollipop that cannot be protected from flies (which means men in the language of these campaigns), save with the wrapper, which translates to the veil. Under the images of two lollipops, one wrapped and the second naked with flies hovering over it, a religious statement professes that an unveiled woman will not be able to protect herself – for God, the creator, knows what is in her best interest, and thus ordered the veil.”

And finally three, there are no legal or societal penalties on that kind of behavior. As mentioned women are discouraged to answer back to the harassment. The 2005 Arab Human Development Report proclaimed that despite most Arab penal codes guaranteeing the safety of women at the work place no code contains a concrete definition of the crime of sexual harassment. Yet societal values are not only reflected in codes but the practice of the executive. Zahra Hankir recounts in her article ‘The Reality of Harassment’ the story of Rima: ” a 26-year-old woman, … that when she went to the police station to report that she had been assaulted by a male colleague, the police officers on duty laughed at her and made lewd remarks. That experience sheds some light on why so many women who have been exposed to sexual harassment are often too scared to come forward, fearing that the incident will be interpreted as their fault.”

Following these insights, when a group of young man proclaim “yislam kissik” (praise your vagina) to a women in the street and especially if the women doesn’t reply, they re-enact the social order, re-claim the public space as an intrinsically male domain in which women are only tolerated on the whims of men. The same is true for advances at the workplace, a formerly exclusively male-dominated space. What further emphasizes this interpretation is the fact that women are hardly ever molested if accompanied by man. A free roaming women, uncontrolled by fathers, brothers or husbands, has to be put into her place as Gedah pointed out in relationship to sexual harassment.

The fact that sexual harassment is particularly prevalent in the Arab World is not to do with our ‘unhealthy’ relationship to sexuality. It is rather to do with the system of patriarchy and the above discussed consequences. Surely this in itself is related to our relationship to sexuality.

Got to source and read the complete article here


  1. Anonymous4:33 PM

    happy ramadan

  2. Happy Ramazan to all readers

  3. Anonymous11:24 PM

    happy groping..................?