By Yara al-Wazir
22 October 2017
The allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein have shaken the world. So far, more than 30 women have provided statements that the producer sexually harassed or assaulted them over the course of his career in the movie industry.
The allegations have prompted women around the world to share their individual stories of harassment and abuse that they have faced over their lifetimes using the hashtag #MeToo.
My feeds have been inundated with women making frank and transparent statements about their own experiences of harassment, be it while they were walking down the street in broad daylight, or at universities, schools, or even at the workplace.
Yet the countries driving the conversation are predominantly the United States, the United Kingdom, and India. A heat map of the Hashtag #MeToo shows that the Middle East has remained alarmingly quiet at highlighting the severity of the issue and the experiences of the women.
This is despite the fact that harassment is rampant in the region. This year, Cairo was recently named the most dangerous city for women in a survey by Thomson Reuters Foundation. In 2013, a UN report revealed that 99.3 per cent of Egyptian women had been harassed on the streets.
Despite the title of this article, I typically refuse to ask the question “why aren’t Arab women speaking up about the sexual harassment that they suffer?” – Instead, asking “what can society do to make these women feel comfortable about sharing their stories.” Harassment comes with a lot of baggage and strings attached. Socio-cultural norms dictate that a woman is somehow complicit if and when she is harassed.
Arab culture will always find a way to try and blame the woman. The language in itself that is used to describe harassment is solely about the women – gender-based violence is exercised by one gender against the other, yet the language used to describe it only mentions one gender: women. By actively excluding the male gender from the equation, the language is inherently blaming the victim.
If you want to know why Arab women don’t share their stories, consider the heckling and sarcastic tone used to describe gender-based violence on social media; consider the absence of laws that criminal’s sexual harassment in the region, or even worse, the lack of implementation of these laws in the countries where they do exist.
Women in this region and around the world don’t choose to be harassed, they do not choose to be sexualized, and they do not choose to not talk about it. If women in the region had an ounce of belief that talking about sexual violence would actually change anything, they would be talking about it more. Instead, talking about sexual violence opens the floodgates to further vilifying the victim with questions.
The statistics in the Middle East are clear: it is a dangerous place to be a woman, and I would say there is a 99 percent chance of sexual harassment when walking down the streets in a city like Cairo.
Let’s Put the Laws to Practice
The unfortunate truth is that for thousands of women in the region, harassment is simply a part of everyday life; however, it doesn’t need to be.
The impact of sexual harassment on the emotional and mental health of women is substantial. It causes disorientation, reduces concentration levels on what really matters, causes distractions, and fundamentally decreases the productivity. This is all in additional to the emotional turmoil suffered by women, which cannot be quantified.
When Saudi Arabia introduced a royal decree that would permit women to drive in June 2018, it also introduced a law that criminalizes sexual harassment. Egypt has similar laws, as do other countries in the region. Laws to protect women do exist; all that women in the region need to be heard are active listeners.
It is time that the laws, that women spent decades lobbying for, are put to use and open and accessible forums for discussion are made available. The only judgment that should come with harassment is against the perpetrator.
Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories.