Tag Archives: public space

On Being Human

“Fuck you, asshole!” I yelled.

Easily three times my size, “hey, pretty thing” was helping someone carry a table down Fredrick Douglass in Harlem. My words bounced off his back.

His friend, who was facing me, and carrying the opposite end of the table from my  “admirer,” looked up, surprised.

Seeing only a cloud of red instead of the Dunkin Donuts pumpkin munchkins I had been fantasizing about and on my way to get, the words furiously kept pouring out.

“If you want to say something, why don’t you say it to my face, instead of just walking past like a coward.”

A few weeks earlier, the same explosion of fury against “hey, gorgeous,” who had sidled past me, muttering, while turning into the corner store, had at least elicited a silent apology of upraised, “I surrender” hands when I stopped and loudly vented.

I think people turned and stared. I’m not sure. I lost sight of everything else around me.

I’ve done my time in Cairo, where I lived before moving to New York. An April UN report said that 99.3 percent of women in Egypt have experienced sexual harassment.

New York was supposed to be a respite.

I am not an angry person. Ever. Ok, almost ever. How quickly the rage engulfs me, transforms me, is astonishing.

In Cairo, I tried to knock over the motorcycle of two “pssssst, pssssssssst, ya asl” as they slowly drove past me in rush hour traffic.

Through the city’s winding, ritzy neighborhood of Zamalek, I chased the “ass-grabber,” no older then fifteen, down ten blocks yelling, “I hope God brings destruction to your home.” (It doesn’t sound as bad in Arabic.)

From a movie camera perspective, the two Cairo incidents and my reaction were probably comical.

But what would I have done had I actually caught the ass-grabber?

Or if “hey, pretty thing” had actually turned around and yelled back at me?

In Cairo, I honestly have no idea. I might have tried to chastise or have a conversation, but every time I’ve attempted that it has been taken as a flirtation or met with mocking laughter. I think the trick is to be calm and distant, instead of livid.

Except the problem is that I’m so fucking angry.

In New York, I might have engaged.

Maybe.

Photographer Hannah Price did a series called City of Brotherly Love, taking portraits of men in Philadelphia who had harassed her minutes earlier.

They are compelling, evocative pictures.

The Philadelphia neighborhood is clearly low-income. Most of the men are black. Their faces show the wear of a hard life.

This is all somewhat true of where I live in Harlem. It’s “gentrifying” – i.e. kicking out the long-time residents for yuppies and students, most of whom come from privilege – like me.

Similarly, in Cairo, Julia Simon, a young American radio journalist, spontaneously stopped and had a conversation with the guy who harassed her as she walked by  – probably a young kid on the side of the street, peddling or loitering, with not much else to do.

The unemployment rate among young men in Egypt is 32 percent. Underemployment is just as bad, if not worse.

Both of these women have sympathy, or at least curiosity, about their harassers, whereas in that moment of being harassed, I have none.

I know that there are justifications and histories and contexts and sociologies and pathologies that explain why this happens. There are compelling reasons to engage these men with understanding and not hostility.

But in that moment, when you stop believing I’m human, I also stop believing you’re human.

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Reclaiming the Space

Cocky, self-assured, smug. They whiz by on motorcycles taunting with words, leers, and jeers as they speed by.

For the last two months it has been my goal to knock over a motorcycle with guys who are harassing me. The temporary satisfaction of immediate revenge.

The actual execution of my fantasy was a complete failure. Out of a subconscious awareness of my plan rather than premeditated determination, I kicked the motorcycle zooming by while two young men harassed me. Motorcycles are heavier than they look. I didn’t even make the motorcycle veer a fraction from its path, and they sped away in a triumphant, amused burst of laughter.

For just one moment, I want them to know the feeling that nothing I can do to my harassers will violate them in the same way they violate me, to drown in the same raw vulnerability of always knowing the imbalance of my retaliation.

The Fight for Space

Walking the streets of Cairo, I can’t stop being grateful that I’m not a stunning beauty, nor a strikingly obvious foreigner. It’s strange to me that Cairo evoked this gut response to beauty, but it did. It can be hard enough to manage here as a female. Being normal looking evokes enough unwanted attention that standing out in anyway must be a nightmare.

Depending on the time of day, location, and context, and sometimes irrespective of all of these factors, for some Egyptian males, the public domain is theirs and only theirs. Aged eight and upwards, it is their God-given right to gawk, smirk, chide, and on rare occasions, shove. Anyone with a vagina best come prepared for battle necessitating the disdain, haughtiness, and intimidatingly ferocious temper of an ice queen.

Going about daily activities garners unsolicited harmless appreciation, condemnation to hell, and more lecherous suggestions from various charmers who have felt compelled to sidle up to me on foot or in their car and say something. I’ve had boys, no older than 13 at best, aggressively get in my face with a litany of inappropriate comments. I am twice their age.

Initially this caused a destructive spiral of self-evaluation: was I wearing something wrong? Doing something incorrectly? Walking in a provocative way? Bad idea. As long as you’re respectful of context, don’t go down this path. You can be a ninja (i.e. niqabi) and at some point you’ll get harassed.

To keep perspective, I have been lucky enough to avoid any sort of physical harassment, although I have heard awful first and second-hand stories. (Harassment is common enough here that women regularly trade stories and tips on how to avoid it.) However, even having to make the distinction between physical and verbal harassment and count it as a blessing is unacceptable.

IMG_3191(Bottom left: “Be a man and protect her.”)

Now the rage has set in, and I’m on the warpath.

I have been told to respond with a graceful, matronly “respect yourself” to shame the harasser. However, most of these men are not overly earnest, harmless youth intoxicated on the freedoms of fluttering away from the mother hen; nor, are they middle-aged men being daringly forward just for a day. For the few who are one timers, it’s generally apparent from their timid demeanor. These men are serial harassers who take an obvious sense of entitled enjoyment in their behavior. A reminder of moral integrity has leverage when they acknowledge that their behavior is shameful to begin with, but most harassers are unconcerned. Well, that is, until you make enough ruckus to scare them off.

What these serial harassers don’t expect is for you to fight back. And definitely not loudly. Make a scene. Yell back. Throw things. Throw water. Just do enough to make clear that you were wronged and will not tolerate it. Draw attention to the harasser from anyone nearby. Having ignored it in the past, now I make a point to stop, turn back and belligerently address anyone who makes comments while I’m walking past. So far, I’ve been met with blank faces, wide-eyed with surprise that I didn’t just skulk away. Likely inappropriate, but, I’ve also started to deliberately seek out eye contact with harassers who slow down in their cars to mutter something, murder in my eyes, and then throw up my middle finger. Not a big deal in the States, but here, this has elicited double takes and hopefully deterred further behavior, though one can never be sure.

IMG_3202(“No to harassment.”)

Amid the incorrigible behavior of these men, the reputations of kind, respectful, decent men suffer and all Egyptian men are unfairly debased. While I have never experienced this extent of harassment, I have also never been as well taken care of by men who are true gentlemen (except, perhaps, in Sudan). Aware of the harassment faced by women, they have helped to deter it whenever they can by going out of their way to walk or drive me somewhere, or calling to make sure I have arrived safely.

That male friends, acquaintances, and colleagues – not just family – feel compelled to protect women from other men reflects how tautly the social fabric is stretched as trust between the sexes ceases to exist. Boys learn by example that it is ok to debase women, to infringe upon their sense of safety. Erring on the side of caution, women are always on their guard. Society further instills a divide between the sexes, to, among other reasons, protect women’s chastity from ravenous, opportunistic men. Not only does this create temptation of the forbidden, but it limits the opportunities for respectful, friendly interactions between the sexes. And the cycle of harassment continues.

Every day women re-engage in the battle to establish their right to be safe in the public space. Every day the gains of yesterday must be defended and reinforced today.