This piece was initially published as part of the sexual harassment response by Fikra Forum
“Silly girl, why did you take the metro when you saw that it was packed?” That was my teacher’s response to my tearful story of harassment. According to her, it had happened because I, a shy, timid, un-groomed 13-year-old girl, had decided to take the metro to school. It was not the fault of the lawless gang of men who molested me on the crowded metro; they were not part of the equation as far as my teacher was concerned. I can still recall clearly her statement, “If only you had waited for the next metro, none of this would have happened.”
In our society, we hear “if only” quite a bit. This is what girls and women hear when they complain about sexual harassment: If only you had avoided the crowded metro, if only you had not looked at him, if only you had not replied, if only you had dressed differently, if only you had worn the hijab. The list goes on and on. But make no mistake, it is always our fault – the woman’s fault. It is our job to protect ourselves, and not to expect men to behave themselves. A modest dress code, avoiding eye contact, and walking briskly are the unwritten rules that girls learn to avoid being harassed on the street. Walking with your chin down is also desirable, as any bold, self-confidant body language invites “attention.”
But what exactly does a modest dress code mean? In 1970s and 1980s Egypt, wearing a hijab was the answer. In the 1990s and beyond, wearing the jilbab (head scarf that extends to cover the chest) was the ultimate solution. Colors are also crucial; some advocate wearing only black, brown, or grey. The more a woman can put off men, the better. Even so, currently, even women who wear the full-face veil – the niqab - are being targeted.
I believed in the dress code myth for years; I convinced myself that my incident at 13 was just an unfortunate event and that it would not happen again. I simply ignored the repeated verbal harassment that became a recurring theme in my life. This was the case until I visited Iran. That trip changed my life. Like all visitors to Iran, I had to conform to the mandatory Islamic dress code. I was shrouded in black, and frankly a bit scruffy, after days of touring the massive country. One afternoon in Yazd, I headed to the stunning Amir Chakhmaq Complex and Mosque with many locals who wanted to climb to the top balcony for the spectacular view of the city. I followed the crowd and started to climb the narrow, spiral staircase. About half way, I stopped to adjust my shoes, which meant that the crowd ahead of me carried on, leaving me behind. It was at that moment that I encountered a bulky local man who was heading down the stairs. Within seconds, he had pushed me against the wall, covered and sealed my mouth with his hand, and started molesting me. For several moments, I thought I would be raped. I tried to push him away, but I couldn’t. What saved me was the appearance of two angels: Two lovely boys had climbed up the stairs ahead of their parents; the thug let me go once he heard their giggles. Their innocence saved my honor and my body.
Amir Chakhmaq Complex and mosque( with its beautiful balconies)
For me, what happened in Yazd was the ultimate proof that the dress code was a myth. It exposed the fallacy of the dress code theory and revealed how it is used as an excuse by this society to do nothing to address the shameful treatment of women. Like many other women, I was attacked when circumstances allowed a pervert to exploit and assault me.
Now men do not even try to be discreet; women can even be exploited publically on TV. For example, in a recent video, now making the rounds in social media, Egypt’s information minister was interviewed by Zeina Yaziji. Many watched in shock as he said, “I hope the questions aren’t as hot as you are.” Regardless of whether this was a silly joke or a reckless comment, it reflected the depth of disregard for women in our society.
My experience confirms what statistics reveal; conservatism does not cure sexual harassment. It just pushes it underground and covers it with a thick black seal that hides the deprivation and perverse behavior and facilitates the exploitation of the vulnerable. Those who point fingers at the “decadent West” do not understand the core foundations of any sexual relation: age and consent. These two words are absent from the minds of radicals who promote underage marriage. For them, consent is granted through silence; if a woman is silent, then she is happy. But women do not chose to be silent; it is men who do their best to shut women’s mouths and undermine their claims if they dare to seek help.
Sadly, it seems that those who want to bury their heads in the sand will never stop; their twisted logic and myopic vision keeps us from addressing the cultural and economic reasons behind sexual harassment. The call for conservatism masks a deeper problem in our society: the desire to impose medieval patriarchal attitudes and illiberalism for political gain. For some, women’s independence is a threat that undermines their ideology. They hide behind Sharia to brainwash the poor and unemployed. They convince them that women are to blame for their circumstances. Like the dress code myth, they propagate another myth: “If women stayed at home, there would be more jobs for men.” A flawed claim that even countries like Turkey dispute.
We need to protect women in Islamic society. This protection will never be achieved unless women take the initiative and mobilize civil society to rally for more education and legislation that helps to combat harassment. This is a must if we are serious about our democracy, and our human rights.