Thursday, December 6, 2012

On Harassment - Part I

A few weeks ago in my Sexuality and Islam class, we discussed harassment. The rich and lively discussion was a response to an article we'd read, in which the authors made a lot of interesting but problematic conclusions in their study about harassment, clothing, make-up, and so on. The study focused on the harassment of females in public spaces, such as markets and educational institutions (Shiraz University) in Iran.

 First, let's define harassment. It is:
- being yelled out to, winked at, whistled at, teased, stared at by someone--stranger, acquaintance, anyone at all--in a way you don't feel comfortable with.
- being touched (especially inappropriately) without your permission or consent, or in a way you don't feel comfortable

Harassment can be physical, sexual, verbal. None of them are acceptable, no one should ever have to experience any of it, and no one should ever partake in it.

Of course, not everyone who harasses people are males and not all those who get harassed are females; but because generally, women get more harassed than men and by men, I'll discuss this. Please know that I do not believe that all men are capable of harassment, and I do not think all women are victims of harassment.

Now, basically, some of the conclusions of the above-mentioned study were things you and I hear on a constant basis especially from Muslims who unfairly lie to us that the veil/hijab necessarily prevents harassment. It doesn't! This cannot be emphasized enough: the veil does not help! But I'll explain this below. For now, the conclusions of the study:
  • the younger the female, the more her chances of being harassed; the older she is, the lesser her chances
  • females who wear make-up tend to be harassed more because, duh, they want the (negative) attention
  • the more rebellious, nonconformist a female is, the higher her chances of being harassed -- because the perpetrator wants to "teach them a lesson," wants to "put them them in their places"
  • men are more likely to harass women in public spaces (markets, universities) because they (the men) believe that the space belongs to them whereas females belong in private spaces, such as the home or women-only spaces; hence, when women enter public spaces, no matter how covered they might be, they're willing to accept being harassed - they know it's going to happen, and men are going to do it because they can and will get away with it
So what's wrong with these conclusions? Everything. While they may reflect the reality of harassment, what they do is reinforce the following messages to people:
  • women: stay at home in order to avoid being harassed; even if you're going to be all covered, chances are that you'll get harassed anyway if you are in a public place because that's not designated for you--that's for men only. IF you choose to allow yourself to be a victim of harassment (and in many cases, of rape), wear a long, black veil that covers preferably also your face, and by no means should you put any make-up on if you want to protect yourself from the harms of these bestial creatures we have wrongly categorized as "men"
  • men: it's normal to go ahead and harass a woman who's in a public place, since that's not her natural setting to begin with, and if she's wearing make-up or certain clothing that the culture does not approve of. It's also normal and in fact natural to harass a woman who is a non-conformist, who thinks she's "all that," that she can just defy social norms because she feels like it.
Of course, the conclusions can also be interpreted to mean that they're not necessarily taking a position but just showing how harassment happens, "who" gets harassed and "why" (what!) and so on. BUT I would've liked for the authors to contextualize their conclusions so as to discuss how the culture of harassment works--why, for example, do women get harassed if they are such and such? Also, an important question to consider in studies like this that try to understand a certain problem: why aren't the males being interviewed, too? Why don't we know how they justify whom they harass and why and when and in what context?

Another reasons these conclusions are extremely problematic is due to the messages they convey to their audience, threatening women into submission to restrictive and unfair gender norms and normalizing harassment so as to make men feel comfortable with doing such things in case it ever occurred to them that it's wrong to do so. In other words, a male harasser is easily being taught that he's not the only one who harasses or has the tendency to harass females and that there are "reason" for why harassment happens, so he's not completely at fault.

So, above, I mentioned that harassment isn't about the clothes or the veil we wear (or the veil's lack thereof). This is explained eloquently and powerfully in an article I came across recently where the author talks about the harassment of women despite ("despite") how covered they are, which proves the point that, really, harassment isn't about what we wear--those who do it can just do it and get away with it easily. The article is aptly called "The myth of how the hijab protects women against sexual assault."

Harassment--all kinds of harassment, from verbal to sexual--is about control and power. Women get harassed because those who harass them know they'll get away with it. The only thing that helps is for us to teach our children that every human, including females, should be respected and dignified under all circumstances no matter what they are wearing; no one has a right to assume that women/girls "enjoy" being harassed just because of the way they are dressed or walk. Men harass women because we have justified their action, telling ourselves and each other that we brought it upon ourselves, that it can be prevented if we dress differently ("appropriately), walk differently, think differently--be something else. What should we be doing? Teaching these perpetrators or the potential perpetrators that harassing people is simply wrong, unjustifiable and teaching the victims or the potential victims that their bodies belong to them (in cases where the harassment is physical) and that they should speak and act boldly when harassment happens.

I--everyone--should feel comfortable waiting at the bus stop without being stared at and whistled at and hollered at by men from passing cars, some of whom find nothing wrong with extended their heads well beyond the window panes of their cars to make a loud remark about females nearby.

I will continue this in Part II later, which will be more of a discussion I had on Facebook with a female who insisted that the hijab actually does prevent molestation and harassment--and made it clear that females can only wear either a hijab or a bikini (WHY is this thinking so damn prevalent! The alternative to the hijab is not a bikini!)

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