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.
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.