Street Harassment

I’ve been getting some questions about harassment lately, so I thought I’d do my best to explain it a little better.

Street harassment is a massive problem around the world, but is particularly prominent in Morocco, a country that is both developing and has a cultural attitude that facilitates a male-dominated social sphere.  Hollaback!, one my favourite organizations that is working in this area, uses the following definition:

Street harassment is a form of sexual harassment that takes place in public spaces. At its core is a power dynamic that constantly reminds historically subordinated groups (women and LGBTQ folks, for example) of their vulnerability to assault in public spaces. Further, it reinforces the ubiquitous sexual objectification of these groups in everyday life. “

There is a lot of misunderstanding and controversy surrounding street harassment, and how people should respond to it.  And it is, in some cases, difficult to understand for someone who has not experienced a lot of it themselves.  A lot of the street harassment I get here is men saying, “Hi”, “Hello”, “Hi Ladies”, “Welcome to Morocco”, and other similar greetings that, out of context, don’t seem threatening or problematic at all.  The issue becomes a little clearer when you consider that this is a country that has only recently allowed women into the social sphere.  It is only very recent that women are out and about on the streets, which is beginning to threaten the social system wherein men own or dominate the streets.  As a result, a lot of men react by trying to reinforce their domination through street harassment.  And in countries like Morocco, harassment is not only widely accepted, but is also a complete social norm in terms of the attitude towards it.  With this in mind, a simple “hello ladies” is not just a greeting, but rather an expression of social dominance.  On top of that, simple greetings don’t come across as friendly when you hear it every few steps, and it’s only to you.

There is also a lot of harassment that’s more explicitly sexual, which is harder to deal with.  Walking around the streets, I regularly hear, “Hey sexy”, “Salut charmante”, “Oh my god, I have never seen so much beauty”, and other ridiculously sexualized comments.  When I was out with three other girls, we actually received, “You are all so beautiful, I have difficulty choosing.”  Some people say that these types of comments can be interpreted as flattering and as compliments, but that excuses disgusting and sexist behaviour.  Comments like these are not only an expression of male entitlement to female bodies, but also are entirely about power relations and domination.  When a man says something like that to me, he is not complimenting me; he’s asserting his social dominance over me.

It’s rare that I’ll get some sort of harassment that feels like an immediate threat, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t threatening in the long term.  Street harassment, and the social acceptance of harassment, perpetuates a highly sexist culture that glorifies male entitlement.  And even though I rarely feel unsafe, street harassment makes being out on the streets uncomfortable and difficult as a woman.

It’s getting easier to handle the harassment, but everyday it’s up and down.  On the one hand, if I let every single incident bother me, I’ll be miserable here.  But on the other hand, it’s important not to normalize or excuse the behaviour.  We’ve come up with a good balance where we make sure to always talk about it, but also do our best from letting it us affect us on the day-to-day.

I should also mention that street harassment is in no way specific to Morocco or North Africa.  I’ve had some of my worst street harassment in Canada and the UK, and it’s a completely universal issue.  What’s a little bit different here is the social attitude towards it.  People get away with street harassment all the time in Canada, but I always feel relatively safe responding or getting mad; I know that generally the people witnessing the exchange will back me up.  Here, there’s no certainty that the social opinion is on my side, so I would never feel comfortable saying something back.  This inability to do anything about the harassment is one of the hardest parts.

So that’s my little spiel about harassment.  In the short term, no one needs to worry about me here in regards to street harassment.  I know how to handle myself and I know how to deal with it on the day-to-day.  In the long run, everyone should worry about all street harassment because it’s a massive social problem around the world that perpetuates gender-based violence and sexism.

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