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Sexual Harassment in the Middle East

09/08/2016 14:34 | Updated 09 August 2016

Walking through the main bazaar in Istanbul the sleazy stares are incessant. I feel my body freeze up. I'm incredibly uncomfortable. I can't stand to be there and look for a way out. My conversation with a Turkish man the night before rings in my head as he explained to me how Muslim men see women who do not cover their hair as promiscuous and therefore open to be touched, to be harassed. For him the problem is Islam, that it is used to justify the harassment of women. Every single man in the market is staring at me as I desperately try to find an exit. The staring is aggressive and sleazy. I turn to confront one man, to tell him I don't like what he's doing. A small smile spreads across his face. He's enjoying my discomfort. He starts to laugh and taunt me further while a small group of men form around me with similar sleazy smiles on their faces. I push past them and try to hold back tears. The disrespect is astounding.

I'm on my most recent trip in the Middle East.

Sexual harassment. Disrespect. Intolerance. All words that come to mind when thinking about men's attitudes towards women in this part of the world, or many parts of the world for that matter. The disrespect towards women who don't conform to their ideas of behavior and dress, is incredible.

On the same trip I visited Lebanon to conduct a research project on violence against Syrian women. The Syrian women we had spoken to had complained about Lebanese men pressuring them for sex when they applied for jobs, when they were walking in the street or even when they wanted to get on a bus. They were being targeted because they were vulnerable. They were victims of war and therefore easy prey for men. When we questioned Lebanese men about this, they all shrugged their shoulders, seemed unconcerned about the harm that could be being caused and casually said, 'so, she can just say no.' When I tried to explain that besides being extremely inappropriate such harassment would create a hostile, unsafe and uncomfortable environment for women, they didn't understand or they didn't care.

'Sexual harassment is our culture,' said one Lebanese man as he laughed.

Back in Istanbul, I am at a friend's house when a Palestinian man is invited over. Within moments of asking where I'm from the topic of feminism comes up, 'she looks like a feminist,' he says condescendingly. I'm taken aback for a moment and reply, 'well everyone should be a feminist, this simply means you believe in equality and are against violence and discrimination.' A smile spread across his face that I have seen before. It's a smirk, a righteous entitlement to be disrespectful. The room goes silent and looking directly at me he says, 'do you think women should bear the consequences of not dressing properly.' I fear I know where this is going but say, 'what are the consequences.' He looks at me coldly and says, 'rape.' I go cold and I feel my body starting to shake. This is not the first time that these types of violent attitudes towards women have been so blatantly thrown in my face. I say no, of course not, but he doesn't seem to hear me. He starts to laugh and looks around the room at the other men, seeming to think that the joke will be shared and says, 'you see, I know how to talk to feminists.' While I had experienced this level of disrespect from men before, I was still shocked at his entitlement to be so blatantly rude to me. I got up to leave the room.

These types of attitudes are entrenched in perceptions that women fundamentally have less value than men. They are everywhere and are violently offensive.

After so many years of experiencing these sleazy leers and condescending comments about women, I've had enough. I'm tired of feeling afraid to step outside because I know that it is going to be an extremely uncomfortable experience. I'm tired of feeling like I need to be polite when I'm complaining of this persistent sexual harassment and I am tired of so many men being offended by the fact that I'm offended by harassment, rape and discrimination. In a discussion with a Syrian man in Lebanon, he understood the difficulties of being a woman in the Middle East and said, 'you can't live like this.' And I can't. It is not possible to live your life when you are being persistently harassed when you walk down the street or when you go to work. It needs to stop and it needs to stop now. Every woman and girl deserves to to be free and live a safe and happy life. Claims that men are unable to control themselves are ridiculous. If a man cannot stop himself from bringing harm to another, then he belongs in prison. There are so many ways that each and everyone of us can be powerful in making the lives of girls and women around the world safer and it starts with our attitudes. Don't laugh at sexist jokes, don't tolerate your friends harassing women and speak up when you see it happening. Don't dismiss the issue as being irrelevant, shrug you shoulders or say that it doesn't matter. We can all make a change.

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