Sunday, May 25, 2008

Long overdue

It's 9 AM and I am walking to a main street so I can hail what will probably be a rickety cab blaring loud music that will drop me off, very late, at work. It's exceptionally bright this morning and so I'm squinting, cursing myself for having not yet replaced my sunglasses, whose final moments came unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago when they fell into a toilet at a restaurant ( I do not care what anyone says, no amount of anti-bacterial cleaning will make it ok for me to put them back on my face). I am wearing my loose (ie comfortable) jeans and a button-down shirt that my mother-in-law bought for me, and flip-flops, which I donned in a split-second decision geared both by impulsivity and the thought that my boss would not be in the office today.

As I pass a 3arabeyet foul attracting a modest swarm of people, I see a girl, 11 years old or so, also walking down the street towards me. She's wearing long pink cotton shorts, way past her knees, and a matching pink t-shirt. She is tall and skinny, clearly living through that pre-pubescent growth spurt that many young girls experience, when they suddenly get very tall but their hips are still boyish and their chests are still flat. It's still a few months before things will start to suddenly get soft, and weird, and she'll have to start wearing extra undergarments and deal with roundness and pimples and hundreds of questions, some of which I'm sure are already in her head. I think to myself that this could be my younger sister, who also walks with a silent air of self-conciousness, doing a good job of looking straight ahead of her and blocking out the rest of the street. She's carrying a plastic bag, and I wonder what errand she's been sent on, and why she's not in school this morning. As we get closer I see she too is squinting in the brightness, and her eyes have a puffiness that indicate she hasn't been awake for long.

We pass each other, and as I round the corner I'm thinking I should spend more time with my little sister, before the teenage years settle in with their unbudging weight, making her more defensive, more frantically preoccupied, less interested in family. I see the main street now, it's at the next intersection and I mentally groan as two empty cabs whiz by, I'm too far away to hail them, even with the incredibly useful "TAX! TAX!" yell which I have now mastered. A blue Hyandai Matrix, which always seems like a family car to me, is driving up the street I am on and stops on the left. I move to walk around it, and I hear "Saba7 el kheir. Saba7 el kheir." This is not the morning for this. Sure enough, I look to my left and see a man my father's age, sitting alone in the driver's seat. He is looking at me with beady eyes, and repeats the greeting which he apparently uses when he is soliciting prostitutes.

I yell at him, "Eih el 2araf dah!" in a voice harsh and angry and filled with disgust. And then I walk the few remaining steps to the main street and get into a cab. Sitting here now, blogging in my unsupervised office, it occurs to me that my rage was instantaneous, that only a few moments after I'd sat down in the taxi I was thinking of other things. It was not always this way. Up until recently, when drivers would slow down and try to get me to get into their cars because they thought I was a whore, it would weigh on me for hours, altering my mood palpably. The three times that different drivers flashed me their penis, which they were jacking off while looking at me, I was sick to my stomach, the way you are when you consume food or drink items that do things they aren't supposed to. The time I was waiting for the CTA to get to campus, when a driver drove up and down the street 13 times (I counted), in order to pull up in front of me and verbally harass me, I tried to walk up and down the steet to dodge him, standing on the sidewalk as far away from the actual street as possible. It didn't work. 

All of these experiences pissed me off and stressed me out and made me unsure myself. They made me question whether I would ever belong here, and whether I even wanted to.

Despite all of the advances pertaining to women's place in society, despite the thousands of Egyptian women who are doctors and professors and engineers and mothers and farmers and diplomats and writers and protestors, women still have no place in the street. "El share3", when mentioned in relation to women, carries dangerous and dirty connotations. Some say women can have a place there, provided that they dress "appropriately", meaning that they cover up bits of themselves that people have decided to sexualize, that they alter who they are in order to help men control themselves (that this line of thinking humiliates men by assuming they are pigs with no self-control seems to escape everyone). Others tell me that there is room for women "like me" (educated, from "good families", with money) in the street, provided I am in my own private car. Women "like me" should not be walking around by themselves and using cabs or the underground. This makes me think of my friend who was sitting in her car, stuck in traffic, when a pedestrian stuck both his hands through her window and grabbed her breasts. At 2 PM, in downtown Cairo.

Harassment happens everywhere. I've been catcalled and leered at in New York, Alexandria, Istanbul, Abu Dhabi and San Francisco. But there is something about the pervasiveness of it here, the fact that it happens every day, to shocking degrees, and to all women, that we sometimes feel like we can't away from it, can't get a break, that indicates to me that there is a sickness more advanced in this society plaguing the relationship between men and women. The years here may have made my skin tougher, but they have not made me any less saddened.



Wild at Heart said...

I feel grateful that you have opened up this way. Whenever I think of how I've been harrassed all my life, ever since I was younger than this girl, I get depressed and angry and frustrated. I have recently begun to yell back just as you did, especially if I feel that not yelling back may mean that I am 'content' or afraid of screaming out. Oh and it made me feel much better. I still fail to understand the logic behind it, if any. The only explanation I can give is an extremely low self-esteem and a dire need for attention. It's like no one gives a shit about them, so they call for us, their probable sex objects that would relieve their anxiety. That could be just one interpretation, and really, why would a respectable, self-confident, decent man try to annoy you or draw your attention?
I have failed in finding a full explanation, I have failed in healing the wounds, so I will seek professional help. I'll be seeing a therapist next Saturday, because I feel that my life is on hold. That I cannot enjoy simple pleasures because, at the back of my head, I am ANGRY.
Thank you.

Mohamed said...

I constantly hear such stories, though seldom with such eloquence and honesty.

I am deeply ashamed of my countrymen.

Not that it would make any different but know that there's a guy out there - indeed, many - who is deeply, deeply sorry.

Ma3t said...

A little bit over a year ago when i tried to give my own account of the harassment I have been through , it was so hard. I realised that my brain played a few tricks on my memory to render these dark moments blurry.

I used to spend hours trying to pick up an outfit that would bring me the least harassment possible. I could never hope for nor harassment, I just hoped for it to end at the verbal stage.
I used to be so scared though I never showed it, and for a very long time I believed that there was something about me in particular that triggered that extent of harassment. Till I wrote in my blog, and other girls started responding and I realised that every girl in this country rows up knowing what to expect in the street, and is always trying to figure out her own way of dealing with it and of leading a life untainted, and as normal as possible.

there is a part in me that knows that this might be the only reason strong enough to make me leave this country and never come back