Stories about sexual harassment of women currently dominate the news coming out of Hollywood. Numerous allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein started the ball rolling and now more and more women continue to come forward and speak up—many of them on social media, using the hashtag, #metoo.
But this phenomenon is not confined to Hollywood. It’s a fact: women in the Middle East have it pretty tough as far as how they are treated by men. Arab society barely blinks an eye when women are harassed—even assaulted.
So, getting back to the 11-year-old girl in Egypt (one of the most dangerous places to be a woman)… Shaimaa Khalil is grown up now and works as a program presenter for the BBC. She remembers vividly the FIRST TIME she was sexually harassed and she is not afraid to share her story.
Shaimaa’s grandmother sent the girls out with very basic instructions: “Be careful. Don’t go too far and don’t spend your money on stupid things.” “By ‘stupid things,’ Grandma meant ice cream,’ Shaimaa recalls. “And yes, we were planning to spend our money on that.”
The girls were excited but a bit nervous, as they realized that the granting of future freedom by their families would likely hinge on how well this day went. In her mind, Shaimaa added her own admonitions: “No falling, no fighting, no losing your money.”
As they walked along, the girls didn’t realize they were being followed. Suddenly, three boys walking behind them started to purposely bump into them. Then the bumping turned to groping. The girls joined hands and rushed back toward Shaimaa’s grandma’s house but the boys stayed right behind and kept following them, now verbally harassing them.
Shaimaa was frightened but also angry. These boys had ruined her big day! She turned and yelled, “Kifaya! Enough!” This was met with mocking by one of the boys.
Later, Shaimaa’s mother chastised her for talking to them: “You don’t talk to them…you just keep going…. If you engage and make a scene, they win.”
Grandma added, “Were you loud? Were you laughing and being silly for no reason? I know how you can get, Shaimaa… and why that sleeveless shirt…it’s too short…your whole bottom is showing….”
Shaimaa couldn’t remember if she had laughed but figures she probably had. After all, she was having fun…until the boys did what they did. She does remember thinking, “I had no idea how the conversation [with my grandmother] turned from me complaining about three horrible boys and what they did to me, to my being blamed for their actions.”
And that’s a very common problem in the Middle East: women being blamed for the inappropriate actions of men.
Shaimaa’s mother had some thoughts about harassment and how to (hopefully) avoid it:
- It will happen. It’s normal.
- Don’t smile. Frown preferably.
- Walk fast. Don’t linger.
- Wear long shirts that cover your behind.
- Do not bring attention to yourself in any way.
Shaimaa’s experience informed the way she views her freedom to do what she wants to do, even something as basic as walking down the street. If she is to enjoy that freedom, she will do everything in her power to keep a low profile and to dress and behave appropriately…understanding that, even so, harassment is a part of life in the region and is perpetrated by everyone from random men on the street, to teachers, to co-workers, and even relatives.
We hope that more brave women like Shaimaa will speak out about this despicable problem; however, the women of the Middle East know they must balance the benefit of speaking up with the reality of being blamed for the harassment and therefore dealing with more restrictions at home.
In the meantime, SAT-7 continues to raise awareness of the sexual harassment of women with programs that reach throughout the Middle East and North Africa and even into Europe. We keep telling and we keep praying!