Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sexual Harassment In the Arab World

A women's protest against sexual harassment in Tunis. Source: TunisiaLive. 

It is no secret that sexual harassment is  a common phenomenon in the Arab world. This isn't grounds for resorting to crude stereotypes about the vulgar and lascivious essentialist nature of Arab men. After CBS foreign correspondent Laura Logan was sexually assaulted in the midst of celebratory Cairo (when at least a million people were on the street of Tahrir Square), some racist and ignorant commentators held this ONE incident as somehow reflective of Arab male attitudes toward women. Most female correspondents were, of course, not bothered in the midst of millions of Arab men.

More to the point: As if sexual violence is absent from American (heavily male testosterone-fused) cowards - day or night. Sadly, a woman surrounded by excited men in a massive coward - and the anonymity that affords both the woman and men - is vulnerable to be attacked - if one wants to generalize, it should be a critique of male primitiveness rather than cultural misogynist norms. And the United States is one of the most violent arenas for women: 23 women in the US are killed every week due to domestic violence, nearly half of all high schools have been or know someone who has suffered physical attack from their boyfriend and, lastly, the number one reason for female admittance into the Emergence Room is domestic violence. The doyen of American feminists, Betty Friedan, wrote in her memoirs her own experience with domestic violence. 

All the above was an effort to situate the following in its proper context by criticizing Arab society while simultaneously disarming Western righteousness, which often (always?) harbor (sometimes in worst manifestations) the very ills they condemn in "the Other". There is no denying, as a frequent visitor to an Arab country, that sexual harassment is a major daily problem for many Arab woman. Anecdotal evidence is so pervasive that it rightly serves as grounds for stating that sexual harassment is a phenomenon widely practiced against Arab and foreign women. 

In the wake of the Arab uprisings, some commentators (ex. Rashid Khalidi) have argued that the problem is (at least partly) rooted in the rule of Arab regimes. Arabs protested in the name of their dignity - the dignity denied them by humiliating and repressive regimes. As Arabs devalued themselves in a form of symbolic violence, the argument goes, young (often unemployed) Arab men shed their dignity and sense of shame and traditional respect for women and inaugurated a culture of cat-calls and whistles. Whether this theory is true or not isn't the point (a generation shift in treatment of women may be due to urbanization - before the local girl was known to all and could not be subjugated to hissing without it being public knowledge. A city of unconnected individuals changes the dynamic. Even today, men who holler at women avoid doing so to those who live on the block), the point is that sexual harassment exists and if the dignity argument is true than the transition to democratic and liberal polities where individual rights are respected should augur well for a change in male comportment. But it isn't cause-and-effect. The Arab opening offers Arab women an opportunity to declare their opposition to the harassment and organize against it along with parlaying organization into political power to that raises broader issues of gender rights onto the table: TunisiaLive for those interested has a very good discussion on this. 

Also recommended readings are Judith Tucker's and Leila Ahmad's books on gender and Islam. 

This will not be done by Westerners with a White Savior complex but by Arabs themselves. The Arab Uprisings have taught us that: liberation comes from within. 

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