My roommate Julie has written a thoughtful and measured post about something that we all experience in Jordan, but often are hesitant to talk about–sexual harassment. It is a sensitive topic. Knowing Julie, I know that writing and telling these stories was a hard choice, but I’d like to share her words because they are filled with truth and objectivity.
The one topic I have avoided blogging about: Sexual Harassment in Jordan
Why, you ask?
Well, to start, I love Jordan, its people, and my life here. Of course, this is a good thing! But, I could also be accused of looking at things with rose-colored glasses more often than not. From this view, the sexual harassment of the streets is something laughable – and not to be “overblown,” because there are so many counter-examples: male Arab friends, students, colleagues, and friendly strangers who are more than upstanding gentleman.
Secondly, I really hate that many people are wary of the Arab world and often have negative stereotypes of the region. The whole point of me living here is to help dispel these misunderstandings, and its something truly important to me. Sexual harassment is, of course, also a problem in America – I even wrote an article after having such experiences at Fairfield University – and its even worse in other places.
So, even though I feel free to talk about ANY other topic in Jordan, I’ve avoided mentioning this major societal flaw.. but khalas, the time has come.
If you promise: not to forget the other wonderful things I’ve told you about Jordan, to avoid overgeneralizing based on my anecdotes, and to remember that [ insert your country’s name here ] is also not flawless … you’re allowed to continue reading …
Disclaimer done. Let’s get down to it then: Sexual Harassment is a HUGE problem here.
Anecdotes to follow.
But first, the Vocabulary:
1) Sexual harassment is done by the “shebab,” which technically means the youth, but in this context means the men of all ages (you’d be surprised how young and how old) who harass women in the streets. Note, these shebab are always strangers.
2) Sexual harassment ranges from “little things” – like shebab yelling “Hello! How are you! How are you!” as American girls walk down the street ( note, I use “little things” in a tongue and cheek way… these are not nice conversation starters, but rather verbal harassment: strangers in the street heckling and laughing ) – to big things – like flashing, grabbing, and rape. Anecdotes to follow.
Second, the Frequency:
1) “Little things” happen every day. In fact, whenever I walk past a man or a group of men who DON’T verbally harass me, I think to myself something along the lines of “Oh, how nice those guys are!” ….. with the follow up thought always being: “Julie, they are nice because they didn’t harass you? Raise your standards.” But really, its true. Shebab have made “normal” behavior praiseworthy.
2) “Big things” also happen. Anecdotes to follow.
Third, the Women:
Well, shebab do not discriminate … sexual harassment happens to EVERY WOMAN who walks the streets. It does not matter if you are foreign or Arab. It does not matter if you have long blonde hair or wear a hijab. It does not matter if you are young or old. It does not matter if you are a model or average looking. It does not matter if you are wearing a mini-skirt or if you are bundled up in a winter jacket. It happens to every woman.
Finally, let me illustrate the “Levels of Sexual Harrassment” with some anecdotes:
– “Hello! How are you! Welcome in Jordan!” .. again, this form of verbal harassment is directed at foreigners …. either as you walk by a group or perhaps yelled as a car drives by you or even perhaps whispered creepily as a man walks next to you.
– But, as I mentioned, its not just foreigners who get this attention. My heart broke as one of my students told me that she doesn’t walk to university anymore because a group of workers verbally harasses along the path. When her Dad tried to tell the manager about the behavior of his workers… the manager shrugged it off, shu bidna nsoui?
– An extension of this –> Stalking –> has almost caused many car accidents. This is a fairly common scene: a car slowly driving next to me, forcing traffic to go around him, while he tries to get my attention. The most vulgar, and comical, version of this was the 18 year old who slowly drove next to me until he could find the English words he was searching for: ” I …. ” –> ” I … want … ” –> ” I … sex … ” –> ” I … want … sex ” –> ” I WANT SEX! ”
– What’s worse than stalking? Flashing. On the one hand, this is seemingly uncommon. On the other hand, its happened to two of my friends here…. one man exposed himself to Biff in a taxi, and another man flashed Nadine while she jogging around a children’s park.
– A step up from flashing? Touching. Again, this is also uncommon. And yet… it happens. And in fact, it is the reason I decided I had to write a post. First there’s one of my Jordanian friends, who was grabbed by a man in a crowded book fair [ as further proof of how amazing Nisreen is, she turned around, slapped the guy, and publicly shamed him ]. And then… there’s me, who was walking tonight past three shebab, who grabbed my butt once… then followed me as I hurried down the road and grabbed it a second time.
All of these “Levels of Sexual Harrassment” are annoying, frustrating, disheartening, Sometimes people don’t understand “the big deal” .. and often people here write off the shebab as an unavoidable inconvenience. But it is a big deal, because every level escalates. It may seem harmless for a guy to yell “Welcome to Jordan!” to an ajnabia… but what about when he yells from a car to an Arab girl?… then what if he says “I want sex!” next?… then what if he flashes a girl?… then what if he touches her?… then what if … ?
Who wants a society where you’re always expecting the men to behave badly? Avoiding their eyes on the street? Holding your breath as you walk by a group? Being surprised – and grateful – when men act normal?
Not me. And, if I could take a minute to go back to the DISCLAIMER above, neither do most Jordanians. In fact, a class from the University of Jordan recently made a great video protesting the sexual harassment present on their campus.
The first step is to bring everything out into the light. Just like this video did, we need to put the truth out there so that people can recognize it, talk about it, and hopefully change it.
This post is my contribution.
– Julie Whittaker
You can check out Julie’s other thoughts on her blog: www.julieinjordan.wordpress.com