Muslim Matters on Sexual Harassment in Muslim Cultures

Hena Zuberi just published a great, awesome, relevant, necessary, important article about sexual harassment in the Muslim community, and I found myself typing a comment so long it could stand alone.  And I think it should, because the more websites, the more people, the more Muslims talk about sexual harassment, the more people there will be to stand against it, InshaAllah.  Before reading my post, I recommend reading the original post here.

Unfortunately, I know the humiliation of the Pakistani bazaars and tailors too.  I learned to carry a big, empty purse (empty, because the bag would be exposed to pickpockets) and place it over my backside while walking through the crowded streets, and to walk with my elbows out to make more space around my body and to move only in groups. We learned which tailors were safe and which were not, and it didn’t matter if he made your sleeves too big and your pants sideways, at least he was shareef and you could go back and have the clothes fixed without being groped.  My extended family in Karachi has been using the same tailor for so long that he was the family tailor when I was 9, and I’m 30 now.

I have heard stories of getting fed up and screaming one’s head off, but in a tight crowd, you don’t even know who you’re screaming at.   I’ve spoken to cousins who say they want to smash someone’s face in, but they turn around and don’t even know who touched them.  Even here in Dubai there are cases of taxi drivers, men in shopping malls, coworkers, legal sponsors, even waiters and cleaners making deliberate, inappropriate contact with women.  It is punished, *when* it can be proven, but when women are so shocked they don’t react or are too humiliated to draw attention to it, it simply repeats itself as silent abuse.
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Owl and I have both had plenty of experience with this, and I used to think it was because we were half-white, and therefore gori-chitti-ai hai recipents of unwanted attention anywhere we went.  It turns out that this happens to any sort of woman in Pakistan- anywhere where molesters can hide in the crowd.  Another one of my cousins told me about a man touching her through a space in the seats while seated behind her on a bus.  Yet another got her chest grabbed by catering staff in typical wedding-buffet traffic, and for years afterwards we held our dinner plates at chest level for the same reason.

I was angry about it as a young woman, but now as a mother, I think I would fly into a face-punching rage if I saw someone inappropriately touching either of my children.  I never reacted this way as a young girl or teenager, but perhaps I needed those years of suffering (I lived in Pk for eight years!) to help me break out of the passive shame.  The first time I ever spoke out was at a wedding here in Dubai, and I was standing near the bride & groom’s seating area when I felt someone press very definitely against me.  It was not a crowded space, and although there were other guests standing around and socializing in the same area, there was no question about there being enough room to pass me without initiating full body-on-body contact.  At first I was stunned.  I turned and looked behind me to see one of catering staff sidling away from behind me without making eye contact or even acknowledging what had just happened.  Then I wondered whether or not I had imagined it, which I think must be a standard reaction when that happens.  You doubt yourself, and sometimes if the groper is subtle you might even make excuses for them.  Your mind would rather do anything than admit what had just happened, and that’s what my mind did.

And then I remembered Pakistan.  And I remembered what it feels like to be bumped in to accidentally by a waiter (Oh, sorry! So Sorry! Excuse me!).  And then I remembered being pushed against, brushed against, pressed against like this in bazaars, on crowded streets, sometimes within shops themselves by men craning  to look at merchandise just over your shoulder, baji.  And unless someone is walking pelvis-first and in slow-motion, there’s no reason why I should feel that part of another person pressing against me.  That’s not how human beings walk, especially here in the UAE, where employees trip over themselves to stay out of a woman’s way for fear of being arrested and deported (and maybe a little beaten, too) by her angry husband.  The police do not deal very graciously with groping here, so if you want to keep your job, you have the sense to watch where you’re walking.

So I told HF, and I adore him for this, his first question was Who?  He didn’t say ‘are you sure?’ or ‘maybe he just bumped in to you?’ or ‘you probably imagined it.’   He took me on my word and even told his brother, who was also a guest at the same wedding.  At the time I was embarrassed that he did so, but later I felt happy and relieved that HF found nothing shameful about what had happened and brought in reinforcements to help protect a woman in the family.

I was able to point the man out.  HF made note of the name on his tag and discreetly found the manager.  About half an hour later the manager came to apologize with the same server.  He said he had tripped, and while the man looked blank and unapologetic as the manager issued an apology on his behalf, at least he had been caught out.  About an hour after we left the wedding a higher level manager called to apologize, saying the man had stumbled somehow, but was profusely sorry.  Nothing much happened, and nothing much came of it (as far as I know anyway) but hey- I did it!  I told someone!  And no one yelled at me, or called me a liar, or told me I was making things up.  And most importantly, no one said it was my fault.

Alhamdulillah for good men, and Auzubillah for the bad ones.  I guess every man needs to decide which one he’s going to be.  And every woman needs to decide whether or not she’s going to suffer in silence or take a stand.  Angrily turning around and yelling ‘who touched me?’ may not yield any immediate confessions, but at least a groper will think twice about whether he wants to be caught.  The sooner we stop blaming and shaming ourselves, the sooner we can speak up and InshaAllah, give sight to the blind eye that is otherwise turned to casual sexual harassment.


Video from the Harassment in Egypt Blog

7 Comments
  1. *raises hand*

    age 14 in isloo.

    told my mom who told my dad who told his brother who went to the tailor’s establishment and i’m kinda fuzzy on what exactly went down but i believe they settled the matter in a manner that did not invite a question of such behavior being tolerated. fisticuffs may have been employed. still feel sick about it, esp now that i have kids of my own and know enough of the world to fear for BOTH of them.

  2. Shabaash beta. I think I gave the last person who just happened to ‘trip’ into me a shove and a dirty look. He, a Western-raised desi, laughed it off and claimed it was an accident. And sadly, it’s hard to really know if it is, or isnt. Though, come to think of it, I’m pretty prone to walking into things, and yet I’ve NEVER accidentally groped or mashed a guy. :/ So, if I can manage to keep myself to myself, they should be able to as well.

  3. Thanks for the love Abez, just got off a call from her friend who after reading the post brought up forgotten memories that she had squished deep inside her and now she is going to talk to her daughter about telling if anything happens:)

    I hate that too when you don’t know who did it- who do give the thappar too?

    Tailors are the WORST-
    I started a tailoring store in Isloo before getting married and hired a woman who would take measurements- it was such a cute store too called Malaaikah-all pink and gold. But some customers were like “no master ji ko bulai wo naap langey!” Some women spend hours chatting up their tailors- I asked the tailors about it and so many said these women are so bored at home and get zero attention from their hubbies- there is way more to this issue then men r creeps

  4. Baji: Hooray for good ole fashioned fisticuffs! I still get the heebie jeebies when these kind of memories come to mind, but if we can convert them into something that can help protect our kids, then we, as mothers, may not need to go on a killing spree after all. :p

    Owl: Why would someone think it was funny if they tripped and accidentally mashed you? If the guy laughs it’s because the situation was amusing or pleasant. Where is your softball bat in all this?

    Hena: Oh man, I wish I knew of your store!!! Is it still open? And that is so extremely bizarre- women chatting up the tailors for some male attention- of all people, why your tailor?

  5. On a public bus in pakistan, the men sit behind the women. On one such trip to karachi university, my friend noticed a finger protrude next to her from the gap between the back rest and the seat of her seat. So the guy behind was trying to find something to poke. She grabbed it and twisted it so hard, she claims she was going to break it.

    It was a funny story anyway. Everyone in Pakistan has one I bet! I have several of my own because I went to karachi university in batch full of misguided boys.

  6. Men such as those need to be made an example out of. Cutting them into pieces and/or letting ravenous dogs loose on them are some of the thoughts that come to mind.

    I landed in Pakistan around 18 years of age, and till then had absolutely no idea of or exposure to this phenomenon. I am sure it existed, but thankfully, it’s existence was not known to us teenagers.

    My first exposure to this shameful practice came at a concert in Lahore, when at the end of the concert when people were leaving the Alhamra open air theatre all hell had broken loose. Hundreds had found their way in without tickets, so the place was bursting at seams with people, and people got nasty. We were a group of boys about 15 or 16 of us, and I know some were very angry at what they had seen, but there were also some who were amused.

    The feeling of shock, disgust, anger and helplessness stayed with me for weeks if not months.

    More shock and disgust were to follow when ‘friends’ from the neighborhood where I was renting a room left in droves to prey upon female shoppers on chand raat. Then there were those who set up bangles stalls simply so they could come in contact with females, and came back and exchanged stories.

    On the other hand though, I have also seen a guy get severely beaten up at a ‘wagon stop’ because some lady complained against him. From the number of people who jumped in to lend/land a hand one got the impression that the people were completing a deeni fareeza. There is undoubtedly deep seated anger against this practice, and I still like to think that the perpetrators are a small percentage of the men folk of our country.

    Now in KSA, I have heard some stories about some incidents occurring in the very Haram, and I just don’t know what to think. My system just shuts down.

  7. Kniq Bhai- very interesting perspective from a male side- and about people behaving inappropriately in the Haram- auzubillah, I have heard so many stories first hand that I’m genuinely concerned about going for Hajj. :(

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