As Jordanian women leave the home and enter public life, sexual harassment has reached unprecedented levels of social acceptability.
Sexual harassment is global, but in Jordan and other Arab countries it has reached unprecedented levels of social acceptability.
Every morning, Miriam (names have been changed to protect anonymity) gives herself plenty of time to catch the 7:10 bus that passes her apartment and takes her to work. One day in early January, however, the bus didn’t come. She had no choice but to take a taxi.
When one pulled up, another woman was already sitting in the back, in accordance with local norms, as the front is reserved for males. The driver “asked me to sit in the front seat, because the woman was sitting by the door,” Miriam recalls. “So I did, thinking that the woman would be with me the whole ride. But at some point she got out, and I didn’t go to the back seat.” Flashes of disgust and anger punctuate Miriam’s otherwise reserved tones.
The driver “started talking about the weather, saying, ‘It’s really cold out today.’ I thought it was a nice day, and I said, ‘No, it’s nice.’ He said, ‘Yes, especially when there’s snow. Do you like snow? Do you play with snow?’”
Miriam, who is in her mid-20s, replied that, no, she did not like snow.
“Then he said, ‘I have female friends that … tell me when they play with snow and feel the snow against their bodies, it’s an amazing feeling.’” Miriam was certain by now that something was quite wrong, and she worried the driver might try to touch her. But when she looked over, his hand was inside his pants, moving.
The driver continued talking about snow until she convinced him to let her out. “That day, I didn’t want to see any man,” she says. “I wished I worked with only women.”
For girls and women in Jordan, sexual harassment in public spaces—lewd catcalls, groping, indecent exposure, men in cars trying to pick up women walking by the side of the road—is a fact of life. Sexual harassment is global, but in Jordan and other Arab countries it is a relatively new phenomenon. Before the 1980s—and this remains true in rural areas—women tended to stay home or leave only when accompanied by men. Then women working outside the home became more common. As women emerged onto streets and into public life, harassment ramped up. In the past three or four years, according to the women I interviewed, it has reached unprecedented levels of social acceptability. Yet sharing or reporting the incidents is highly taboo, and justice for the victims is rare.
Anti-harassment campaigns have grown in Arab countries in recent years. Many engage primarily in online organizing or rely on social media, with varying levels of success; so far, those tools have increased awareness but haven’t been enough to affect policy. Many women are frustrated that they have yet to mobilize society on the issue of sexual harassment in a way that leads to genuine change.
“Harassment is a culture,” says Khadra, a 24-year-old graduate student at the University of Jordan in Amman. Physical, verbal and cyber, harassment happens in the streets, in parks, on public transportation, and at schools and universities.
Despite its prevalence, official research and statistics on street harassment in Jordan do not exist, according to Asma Khader, secretary general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW). Manal Sweidan, head of the gender statistics division at the Jordanian Department of Statistics, confirmed that the department did “not have … any official data regarding sexual harassment.” Khader estimated offhand that 80 percent of women face harassment, and “it is increasing.” The lack of formal data makes quantifying and addressing the issue difficult.
“Even with academics, [harassment] is taboo,” says Rula Quawas, a professor of English literature at the University of Jordan, who is currently on sabbatical in the United States. She knew of no academic studies or researchers focusing on harassment.
For Miriam, whose parents live in the northern city of Ar Ramtha—she is unusual in living with roommates, as most Jordanians live with their parents until marriage—the liberty to come and go as she pleases is curbed by the fear of something happening to her when she goes out. When she is harassed, “I cannot do anything, usually.” The sense that she cannot—or should not—pursue justice or confront her harasser is immensely frustrating, she adds. She once went to the police to file a report on the explicit text messages she was receiving from an unknown number, and they encouraged her not to do so, telling her, “It’s not good for you, for your reputation.”
Reputation is paramount in Jordanian society, and “talking about harassment will, of course, affect a girl’s reputation, because everyone will blame the girl,” Khadra explains matter-of-factly. “The community says it’s her fault, because men are seducible.” Like many Jordanian women, Khadra lives somewhere between tradition and modernity, in a compromise necessary for her own social survival. She is confident and feisty, a self-described feminist who chain-smokes five cigarettes in an hour. But though she neither likes nor believes in wearing a head scarf, she dons it “to protect my father and my family’s reputation.” Khadra lives in Amman but hails from a northern village in which her father holds a high tribal position. “That’s why I wear hijab,” she explains. As empowered as Khadra is, she doubts that she would ever report a harasser, because the consequences would be greater for her family than for him, she says. Once, when a man on a bus tried to touch her from behind, she simply moved seats. “I didn’t want to cause a scene,” she explains. Confronting a harasser means “you waste a lot of energy, and you don’t know what’s going to come of it.”
“The mentality is blaming the victim, so most victims prefer not to talk to anybody about it,” says Asma Khader. If a victim takes a harasser to court, “she will suffer, because she will spend time and money, and the result will be nearly nothing.” The evidence that harassment has occurred is usually only the victim’s word, which carries little weight in a society where the victim’s own behavior is the default explanation for harassment or assault, and where the punishment is too weak—typically a fine of fifty dinars ($70) or a few months’ imprisonment—to deter repeat offenses.
Khader, a lawyer by training, states bluntly that Jordanian law does not protect women. In the country’s penal code, which dates back to 1966, harassment falls under the category of “crimes against good public behavior” rather than “crimes against individuals,” where Khader says it belongs. Harassment is not legally regarded as “an attack … on the person who was harassed,” but rather as a crime against society at large.
Furthermore, the modern term for harassment, taharrush, appears nowhere in the code, which still uses terminology from the Ottoman era. A phrase that roughly translates as “an immodest act” is used instead, says Khader, yet “there’s no definition” or concrete example of what that means. The JNCW is “working on” ensuring that sexual harassment is clearly addressed in labor and educational laws as well as the penal code, but Khader could not say when those changes would be proposed.
In a patriarchal society like Jordan’s, “a man feels that any available woman is his,” Khader says with a dry laugh. Men bear no responsibility for their actions, whereas women are considered to blame for whatever happens to them. This mind-set is so ingrained that, according to U.S. government statistics last updated in 2007, 90 percent of Jordanian women believe that “a husband/partner is justified in hitting or beating his wife/partner under certain circumstances.”
Ultimately, concerns about reputation, the lack of legal protections or consequences, and the deep-rooted belief that women are at fault are a paralyzing combination for addressing harassment in Jordan. As Miriam says, “Nobody’s fucking doing anything about it.”
In 2011, a wave of massive popular protests that came to be known as the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East. This uprising ended the 30-year dictatorship of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak; brought down Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had been president of Tunisia for more than two decades; and set off a civil war in Syria, now entering its fourth year. Arab women were determined not to be excluded or forgotten amid such major upheavals. They started to launch—or expand—campaigns and movements focused on women’s rights, including the right to live without harassment.
The Arab Spring had another effect: Sexual assaults on women, most infamously in Egypt, happened with shocking frequency and brutality. A tactic used by the Egyptian armed forces during protests to intimidate women and prevent them from demanding their rights, these attacks gave rise to anti-harassment organizing and helped catapult the phenomenon into the global spotlight. Taking advantage of the anonymity offered by social media to gather sorely needed data and neutralize the taboo of speaking out, these campaigns enabled individual women to discover that they were not alone in their experiences. Documenting harassment “for the world to see” has helped make the phenomenon “an irrefutable reality,” wrote Loubna Hanna Skalli, a professor who focuses on gender, youth and communications, in a 2013 article on sexual harassment in North Africa.
Diala Haidar of Lebanon is an example of the women who were galvanized by the Arab Spring. In October 2011, she created—along with four other women from Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt—the online page Uprising of Women in the Arab World, because “we didn’t want the Arab Spring to bypass women’s rights,” Haidar explained via e-mail. Through Uprising’s online campaign “Tell Your Story,” women from all over the region shared their experiences of harassment, assault and violence.
One of those women was Khadra. She deals regularly with street harassment, but far more traumatic was the experience of being raped by a cousin from the ages of 9 to 11. “I blamed myself for a very, very long time,” but until about two years ago, “I hadn’t met anyone … whom I could talk to about it.” After reading the stories of other women on the Uprising website, Khadra decided to share. “I felt like it would help other women in my situation who maybe felt … that incident hadn’t happened to anyone before.” Telling the truth, she says, was an enormous relief.
Miriam also recalls “Liking” Uprising’s Facebook page when it first went online. Today, the page has more than 121,000 “Likes,” but Miriam has grown skeptical about whether it’s making any difference in fighting harassment: “I question if … people who harass women have access to social media” or, if they do come across Uprising’s page, whether it would change their perspective or behavior. For her part, Haidar dismisses such concerns. “I don’t think that the challenge in social change” is in “convincing the opponents or the apathetic ones about women’s rights,” she says. Rather, the challenge lies in developing solidarity and a “solid action plan” for “a smart and viable alternative [to] the existing, ugly patriarchal order.”
One organization with a solid action plan is HarassMap in Egypt. Launched in late 2010, before the Arab Spring, it aims to make street harassment culturally unacceptable, in the process harnessing the power of online and social media to gather reports of harassment. “The reports give us so much material to prove all these stereotypes and excuses and myths wrong,” explains Noora Flinkman, HarassMap’s communications manager—such as the belief that women are harassed “because they’re wearing this or that, or they’re walking alone.”
HarassMap’s data collection happens online, Flinkman says, but its activism happens offline, too: More than 1,000 volunteers work in teams to target and educate bystanders about why they should speak up when they see harassment.
Aroub Soubh, a Jordanian media personality and outspoken activist for women’s rights, praises Uprising for its work in raising “very helpful” awareness of the issue. But “paralleling that needs [to be] serious work on laws and media” to impel the government and society to treat harassment as a genuine problem.
In Jordan’s constitutional monarchy, real power rests with the king, Abdullah II, and the state intelligence apparatus. As the Arab Spring flared outside Jordan’s borders, the government quietly limited freedom of speech within, blocking news websites and detaining peaceful protesters. Some observers argue that the Arab Spring bypassed Jordan altogether, and indeed the movement for social change remains weak, unable to convert frustration and awareness into large-scale action. The war in neighboring Syria and the continued turmoil in Egypt have deterred most Jordanians from pushing for change, even in specific areas like harassment. And while Jordan does have some women’s rights organizations, several Jordanian women interviewed for this article and at least one academic have suggested that the majority of these organizations have been co-opted by the state, working for change at a pace and on issues that suit the government’s needs (such as on how to meet international quotas for female participation in government). As a result, these organizations tend to lack grassroots support; nor do they have platforms demanding substantive changes that would affect women’s daily lives.
The silence surrounding harassment in Jordan can be seen as similar to the silence in Egypt six years ago—or earlier. When the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights began exploring ways to address harassment, it found a “serious lack of useful information,” including data and statistics that could “quantify the nature of the problem and identify its urgency,” the center noted in a 2009 report. So it carried out its own research and made headlines in 2008 when it found that 83 percent of Egyptian women have faced some kind of harassment. The notoriety that Egypt has since gained as a capital of sexual harassment and assault has helped shed light and spur action on this very issue.
In 2012, a two-and-a-half-minute video clip appeared online. Set on the University of Jordan’s campus and featuring female students holding signs with common phrases heard from harassers, it had been produced months earlier for a class by four of Rula Quawas’s students. When it ended up on YouTube, the fallout was devastating.
The video went viral, recalls Wesam (who wanted only her first name used), another student in the class that semester. The reception was shockingly negative, with just “one or two or three comments that were actually supportive,” because people thought the terminology that the students opted to display in the video was extreme, even though those catcalls “are what we’re experiencing.” Quawas lost her deanship of the Faculty of Foreign Languages because, she believes, administrators felt the video “ruined the reputation of the university. ... I can take it,” she adds, but the girls who made the video suffered. At least two were spurned by their families, and according to Wesam and Quawas, none of them were interested in speaking to me about what happened.
How much that video deterred activism against harassment cannot be easily quantified or separated from the pre-existing taboo surrounding it. “We have the will, we have the ability,” but “we lack the organization” for grassroots activism, Soubh says. Or perhaps it’s because—she’s not really sure—“people don’t have faith that it’s going to change anything.”
Elizabeth Whitman is a journalist based in Amman, Jordan. She has previously reported for Inter Press Service from the United Nations and is a former Nation intern. Reprinted from The Nation (April 7, 2014), a weekly magazine of politics and culture.