A Culture of Sexual Harassment
“You’re so beautiful”, “wow”, “baby” – are these words offensive to you? What about when the phrases reference sexual acts and use obscene language? Sexual harassment is not always physical but the effects are the same; a woman left feeling violated, offended and dirty.
On the street, in taxis and services, within the walls of universities, drinking in a cafe or even in the confines of some women’s homes, none of these places are free from sexual harassment. These incidences are rarely reported which allows the perpetrators to continue to treat women with no respect. Society condones these men and their actions when it does not stand up for the women who suffer from unwanted attention and contact.
Women leered at when they sit alone; boys on bicycles riding past and grabbing a woman’s body; wandering hands on buses; taxi drivers reaching round to grope legs; abuse on the street. Men undress women with their eyes as they walk down streets or ride buses and see women as their property if left in a room together. It starts as a girl becomes a teenager and then continues throughout her life. These examples of sexual harassment have affected both Syrian and Western women, veiled or unveiled, in a country which strives to champion its multi-cultural tolerance.
There has been a sad demise in the respect afforded to women, particularly those travelling. Not respected for being independent, adventurous or strong, they are increasingly wearing fake wedding rings, talking about fake children and travelling in groups with other foreigners in order to avoid the hassle and unwanted attention from local men. One of the first things many foreign women buy in Syria is a hairdryer. The reality that some people believe a woman with wet hair is a prostitute or has recently had sex is upsetting and shocking. No one would like to be so culturally misunderstood, yet they have to battle with the stereotype that they are easy, loose, and available for any man who is interested, a message perpetuated through selected films, magazines and television shows.
Inquisitive staring is another large cultural shock experienced by foreigners in Syria. However, one soon realises that this attention is not towards foreign women exclusively but directed at women in general. There is a point when this staring becomes uncomfortable and inappropriate. Once the novelty of a two week tourist trip has faded and living in Syria becomes a reality, awareness of sexual harassment increases dramatically.
One of the saddest aspects of sexual harassment in Syria is seeing other women around you when it happens. If a woman does not step in and help when they witness harassment occurring, especially in the street, she is condoning that man’s behaviour. Women need to help women; speak up and make a scene if a case of sexual harassment occurs to you or near you.
This is the sad reality for women today; however it is certainly not the message any government would want publicised. Sexual harassment has become normalised across society due to frequent throw-away comments that are never challenged; only the most obscene and offensive acts are still able to shock. Educating society about women’s rights and striving to change negative stereotypes is crucial. But first, sexual harassment needs to be talked about; we need to recognise that there is a problem.
Al-Thara will be launching a campaign against Sexual Harassment in Syria over the coming months. Please watch the website for details. If you are interested in or affected by the issues raised in this article, please get in touch via the contact details section on this page.