Women: How Do We Contribute to Sexual Harassment?

By: Eman Elshrafi and Kayth Jingchun Kang

As a first-time visitor to Istanbul, a major metropolitan city located in the north-western region of Turkey, I marveled at the history of its structures, the liveliness of the markets filled with colors and spices, and how the hue of the sky perfectly matched the sparkle of the Bosphorus. This was also the hue that marked the architectural features of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, otherwise known as the “Blue Mosque.” It’s magnificence with 6 minarets standing tall could be seen throughout the city. I was drawn to its doors almost immediately where I stared in awe at all of its beauty. Upon waiting to enter, my gaze was interrupted by an erect man purposely “bumping” into me. I stood shocked. I could not believe what was happening. We were about to step into a place of worship AND this man was holding his daughter’s hand. Not really knowing what to do, I simply moved away and decided I was not going to let this incident ruin my experience.

Later that day, I met some women from Ethiopia, who were visiting as well. As we conversed about our experiences, I explained to them that I was dressed conservatively for the day as I had planned to knock out all of the religious sites. One of the women scoffed, “That’s conservative?” In that moment, I felt so much shame. I was instantly brought back to the encounter at the mosque. I questioned to myself whether that was the reason that the man felt the need to behave in such a manner. Did I somehow ask for it because of how I was dressed?

Throughout the Middle East and the greater Muslim world, where the status of women is often scrutinized, we have seen laws passed that grant women rights and protections that they did not previously have. And yet, women are still largely subjected to unequal practices as well as sexual harassment. For instance, although in 2014 sexual harassment was criminalized in Egypt, in 2017, it’s capitol, Cairo, was named the most dangerous in the world for women according to a Thomas Reuters poll. Similar data spans the region. So, where does the disconnect lie?

Often, when matters of gender inequality and gender-based violence are discussed, attention is mostly placed on the political and social structures dominated by the patriarchy. While this is a rightly-placed and valuable proponent, the impact lies short. The question that we must ask then is why?

Of course, a myriad of reasons are to blame here. However, my experience in Turkey made me think about how we, as women, contribute to these structures. Time and time again, you hear stories about women coming out with stories of sexual harassment only to face shame and blame by others. Many a time, those responses come from other women. Mona Eltahawy, who started the #MosqueMeToo campaign, writes that when she shared her story of being sexually assaulted during the Hajj (an Islamic pilgrimage) with an international group of women in Cairo, an Egyptian female told her that she shouldn’t share this story with foreigners at it would “make Muslims look bad.”

Such accounts force us to consider whether we, as women, may be reinforcing the very same patriarchal systems that harm us? And with that, are women gatekeepers to patriarchal societies? As we explore this topic, it is critical to assert that we do not absolve men of any responsibility in the matters described above. However, there is significance in examining our own attitude (whether conscious or unconscious) and how it contributes to the larger gender dynamic. Through the examination of user-generated video footage posted on social media, we will attempt to raise consciousness about how our behavior (emphatically as women) contributes to the normalization of gender-inequality and gender-based violence. Specifically, our focus will lie in the practice of shame used by women against other women in the Middle East and the greater Muslim world.

Let’s take this first clip, posted to Twitter on September 15, 2019 by a user with a handle of @nesliii777.

The video appears to have been posted previously on Snapchat by a bystander watching the incident. Within the 30-second clip, a woman is heard yelling in Turkish. Upon consulting with a Turkish speaker, we were able to understand what is actually happening in the post. The clip reveals a woman screaming for help after being sexually harassed by a man at the bazaar. She yells, “Is it normal in this country that I can’t walk around like this without being touched or anything.” Then, a husband and wife couple, hand and hand, approaches her. The wife confronts the screaming woman, criticizing, “It’s your fault because you’re wearing shorts. You should have worn something appropriate.” The victim, then, replies, “Why should I ask you what to wear? I can wear what I want.”

While we tried to get in touch with the Twitter user who posted the clip as well as the original Snapchat poster, we were unable to receive a response. However, we asked the Turkish speaker, who we recruited for translation help, to comment on her reception of the video. She replied, “People feel offended by women who choose to expose skin by wearing revealing clothes. Somehow she could’ve prevented this situation, because she knew how men are at the bazaar or especially in some areas in Turkey. But of course, I am shocked about people’s reactions.” Interesting.

On one hand, there is the woman on the scene blaming the victim for wearing shorts instead of focusing her efforts on trying to help her. To exacerbate matters, this woman was hand and hand with her husband. What kind of message does that send to him, the attacker, and to other men around? Doesn’t it tell them that it’s okay to behave in such a manner because they won’t be blamed anyways? Even, the Turkish speaker, who notably was raised in Germany, reacted similarly by directing her attention on the victim, insinuating that she should have known better. If there are two women who responded this way, then there must be others who have reacted similarly to related incidents. What does this say? In essence, it excuses behavior that is detrimental to women by relinquishing men of accountability and pointing the finger at the women instead.

Next, the clip below was posted on Twitter by user @Shafax6 on November 25, 2018, bringing attention to a snap video posted by Kuwaiti social media influencer, Noha Nabil. Here, Nabil is heard declaring that “femininity” means listening to how men tell you to dress.

This video represents just one of many controversial statements regarding how women should behave released by the fashionista. Nonetheless, it added to the fuel, sparking outrage among followers with many calling that she be removed from beauty campaigns and threatening to stop buying products from brands that continued to work with her. Twitter user @Outsider_S1 called the attention of @JollyChic, @bourjois_uk, and @Versace, stating “Noha Nabil is against women rights. Using her social media’s account to stop any sort of rights demands.”

We reached out to these companies for comment, but we were unable to receive a response.

@Rannd_ replied, “and when women stand against each other, Noha Nabil happens. What a shame.” When we contacted this user for further discussion, she expressed, “In the Middle East you will see a lot of influencers like Noha Nabil encourage the idea of how we can be more open minded and at the same time respect our culture. To make the idea of taking women’s rights away of them more acceptable and more ‘classy’ and that’s what she did exactly.”

Other notable commentators include @shamaqmaq_Qatar, who based on the profile picture appears to be a male user. However, we were unable to get in touch with this account so we cannot confirm. Nonetheless, @shamaqmaq_Qatar wrote, “what happened regarding your snaps about women rights…is the sign that women never support each other.”

Has anyone ever heard of “divide and conquer”? If men can see the divisive behavior among women, it gives them an avenue to take advantage of it for power purposes and the patriarchy will continue to stand in the same way that it always has…by denying equal protections and rights to women.

We reached out to Noha Nabil’s team in order to better understand the words behind her message. Their response is as follows,

“The intended message means there is always someone to take care of you and watch over you and fears people judging you to protect you from getting hurt depending on the culture you are living in and to learn to respect the culture around you and learn how to involve within it.”

They add,

“A single woman is free to do what she wants…After marriage she cares for her husband and he cares for her, if she doesn’t value what her husband thinks of her type of clothing she’s wearing or don’t mind any of what he says then why did she marry him in the first place…But it doesn’t give the man the whole right to say yes and no without valid reasons. Some no’s could be for your own protection from the outside world. We are always supporters of women’s rights!”

So basically, they support the rights of a woman, but only if she respects her husband, culture, and tradition. Any guidelines placed on her by her husband are simply meant for her protection. As if she cannot protect herself? As if she shouldn’t defy the structures in place designed by the patriarchy to inhibit her freedoms? Interesting.

It is critical to remember that Noha Nabil is a well-known influencer in the Middle East. So what does it mean if her words, which reach many, are influencing and reinforcing the perspectives of both men and women regarding the roles of women?

Still, the backlash she received is a good sign that the women of the region are awake and will no longer accept messages of status quo, especially when it comes to their rights. According to Twitter user @Rannd_, when statements like the one made by Ms. Nabil are made, “it makes the people with stronger argument angry and ready to fight back for their beliefs. Which eventually will lead us to a better results.”

In August of this year, reports started surfacing of the death of a 21-year old Palestinian make-up artist from Bethlehem. Although the details surrounding her death are still hazy, evidence points to the fact that she was murdered by her male relatives in what is known as an “honor killing”. The unofficial story spread throughout social media is that Israa had sent a private snapchat picture of her at lunch with her fiancé and his sister to some of her friends. One of the receivers of the picture was Israa’s female cousin, Reham. According to various sources, Reham posted this photo on instagram, shaming Israa for being out with a male who she was not married to, which is considered improper among much of the traditional Muslim world. In doing this, she supposedly hit a nerve with the male relatives, who decided to punish Israa for bringing dishonor to the family. They beat her to death.

The audio clips presented below are WhatsApp Voice Notes exchanged between Israa and Reham, depicting a dispute in the moments leading up to the tragedy. In the exchange, one female, whom we presume to be the voice of Reham, is heard criticizing (in Arabic), “Is there anyone who dresses in this kind of clothes or who puts this kind of make-up on or who goes out dressed like that or who behaves in this manner?” To which the other female (presumably Israa) defends, “Reham, It is wrong of you to talk about me that way…I am a respectable girl. I know who my father is and my father raised me right. I don’t do anything behind his back.”

Although we were unable to confirm how the voice notes ended up in the social media sphere, some sources suggest that they were posted by Remana Naseer, a friend of Israa’s, who supposedly forwarded the messages to her. We attempted to contact Ms. Naseer to verify this information, but we were unable to receive a response.

This case exposes a double-edged sword. On one side is the behavior of Reham in the shame that she inflicted upon Israa not only in her words that can be heard in the audio clip, but also by presenting the picture of Israa with her fiancé to the male relatives with the intent of shame. On the other side, once information surrounding Israa’s death started surfacing on social media, an overwhelming amount of users started to focus the blame on Reham for the murder.

Twitter user Roona posts, “When are we gonna talk about the jealous bitch that got #IsraaGhareeb murdered and women’s role in upholding these oppressive cultural norms.” Instagram user @payad302.free.palestine created a meme that likened the face of Reham to those of female villains from Disney fairytales. The caption: “The face of Evil #JusticeForIsraa.” Another user called on others to “dm the shit out of her [Reham].” To note, most of these comments were posted by women.

Instagram Influencer Daad Khidri, @bintalnile (Daughter of the Nile), posted a video in which she appears to focus on the role of the female cousin in Israa’s death. We connected with her for further discussion, where she revealed, “I said that yes, I hear that this cousin went out of her way to live up to some kind of hate or jealousy or cousins issue within the family…but I don’t think that the cousin ever meant to have Israa killed.”

@SammyDurrani commented, “And the sister of the guy who was there at the lunch, who is her cousin as well, is the evil witch who showed the video to her uncles first. Then she showed it to Israa’s father and brothers and said you are not protecting your honor because Israa gives you guys money from her job as Israa paid for her household.” When we contacted her for further discussion, we discovered that the account belonged to a senior female US army officer of Afghan origin. She revealed to us that she had contact with a woman affiliated with a powerful Palestinian family, who advised that “Israa never existed”. Rather, the story was a fabrication by Israel to portray Palestinians as savages. Mind Blown. Because, of course it’s better to blame the matter on the “enemy” than to accept the situation as part of a larger issue that evidently needs attention. Despite this controversial statement, she went on to clarify that the story cannot be confirmed. Nevertheless, we found it quite curious that both of these sources happen to be women.

Others were quick to call out the reactions of the masses. Instagram user @Talziees writes, “I don’t understand how everyone’s pointing fingers at the cousin when she was only the instigator, she’s not the one who committed the horrible act of beating her to death, that’s on the ‘men’ of the family ONLY!”

When we asked her why she believed that so many women fixated fault on the cousin, she replied, “because they demonize each other instead of empowering each other. We need more empowerment in the Middle East for sure, especially from women to women.”

My mother once told me that a man has a right to touch a woman if she is dressed a certain way. These words echoed in the ears of my brothers, who were sitting close by. I was astonished. How could she speak these words so freely? Did she not think that this thought would plant a seed within their minds, effecting how they would come to treat women? I told her that she was the problem with society.

Upon interviewing a number of women from or who have spent a considerable time in the Middle East and the greater Muslim world, we asked them why they believed that women engaged in the shaming of other women (See the video at the beginning of the article). Their responses carried a common theme. Over and over again, we would hear that women internalize patriarchal norms and tendencies that are carried over from generation to generation, leading to the reproach of women who are perceived to go against those values.

In hearing these testimonies, while reflecting on personal experiences, a critical question arises, what is the role of the mother in upholding the patriarchy?

According to Doctor of Philosophy, founder of the Transformation Academy, and author of Rethinking Marriage in the Middle East: Happily Never After, Tatjana Ostojic,

“Education starts from early caregivers, that are, in most cases- mothers. As children, boys are given priority in terms of access to resources and social involvement. Girls, on the other side, are brought up with thought they cannot do everything they want to do. So, if we observe this in a sense that our early programming is responsible for the development of our characters, and our mothers are the primary source of knowledge, then yes, I’d say that women contribute to the same patriarchal system.”

Still, there is a lack of consciousness as to the true impact of this behavior in contributing to the normalization of gender-based violence and inequality.

Susan Muaddi Darraj, author and American book award winner, stresses, “I do honestly believe that many women believe they are doing what’s best for their daughters and granddaughters when they preserve these systems.”

Nevertheless, even if it may be well-intended, this mindset ultimately harms us. We must become conscious of it, as mothers and as daughters, in order to move towards meaningful change.

Change and the Role of Social Media

Although with the case of Israa Ghrayeb came a social media tornado that displays an example of divisiveness among women, it also represents the strength and solidarity that can arise among women as well.

On September 26th, signs of protests among Palestinian women emerged within the social media arena. These protests, titled “Tal’at” (meaning “coming out”) in Arabic and organized by a grassroots feminist organization under the slogan “Free homeland, free women,” were sparked by the murder of Israa Ghrayeb to show resistance against gender-based violence and specifically femicide. Awareness of the movement started with a facebook page and spread through the utilization of the hashtag #Tal’at or طالعات#. The protests would later spread to Jordan.

The videos captured of the protests by civilians as well as people involved present an incredible display of unity.

One of the clips was posted by Twitter user, @TheHolyLander, who was a male that marched in the Palestinian demonstrations. In order to understand why men became involved, we reached out for an interview. During our conversation, he sympathized that the women protesters “face two frontiers: Israeli guns on the one hand, and Palestinian society’s harsh criticism on the other.”

When we asked him whether he noticed the phenomenon of women shaming other women, he replied,

“Yes, unfortunately a big yes. This is an unfortunate reality in Palestine, and I always heard women shaming being uttered by women who are supposed to be well-educated, work in the field of sociology, including women’s rights! Women in Palestine, for the most part, have endorsed and adopted the male perspective, and thus have established their victimship or sucked deeper into their subjugation, or have become victims of aiding the system that subjugates them. It gives an instant sense of relief to feel part of the powerful group, and to abandon your sisters.”

The fact that we have come across multiple men who have confessed to observing the topic of question is quite concerning to say the least.

Still, we find hope in the increasing number of campaigns that have surfaced throughout the Middle East, including Egypt’s #MeToo movement and #JordanSpeaksUp, in which women stand together in defiance of the patriarchy. This trend must not slow down if we are to continue to progress. According to Masih Alinejad, activist and starter of the #Mycameraismyweapon campaign, “Social media gives power to women to take back their share of society.”

Unity

If our assessment shows us anything, it is that we, as women, must look within if we are to achieve sustainable change. We must become conscious of how our behavior contributes to the problem. And, ultimately, rather than tear each other down, we must stand together. Because together, nothing can stop us. “Instead of being victims, we can be warriors. Instead of waiting for someone to save us, we can save ourselves. We have to show our sisterhood” (Masih Alinejad).

The next time you find yourself being critical of another women, take a moment to stop and ask yourself why? Is the offending behavior truly offensive or are those pesky patriarchal ideals rearing their not-so-pretty heads?

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