Monday, August 31, 2009

It's Not About Sex: On sexual harassment, patriarchy, power, and consent

I've started, and subsequently set aside, several blog posts about sexual harassment in Morocco.

I don't feel particularly qualified to write comprehensively (or well) about this issue. However, sexual harassment has been a large part of my experience here, and I felt a new compulsion to write about my perspective after viewing this fascinating video about street harassment in the States (more on it later).

My experiences with sexual harassment in Morocco have been 99.9% verbal. Unlike in Cairo, where I was often physically grabbed on the street, here the harassment comes mainly in the form of catcalls. It can be anything from a man whispering "Ca va?" as I pass on the street, to a glue-sniffing teenage boy in my old neighborhood shouting broken vulgarities at me, to a man following me and a friend for 15 minutes, asking us all the way if he can practice his English with us. In more escalated cases, men in cars will follow women, commanding them to get in, or will use a crowded city bus as an excuse to grope and fondle.

My most upsetting experience happened when I was walking on the main street of Agdal, a ritzy neighborhood in Rabat. I walked past a young man. (A boy, really. He couldn't have been more that thirteen, and he was probably high on glue fumes.) As our paths crossed, he reached his hands out and grabbed both my breasts. He let his hands remain there for a few seconds, then kept on walking. Completely shocked, I froze in place during the act, then continued to my destination. I didn't (couldn't) react, and neither did anyone around me.

I felt completely powerless. Degraded. Furious. I didn't ask for this; I didn't offer my consent.

And this is how I feel just about every day when I walk down the street and am openly, unabashedly appraised by men.

I studied in Cairo in 2006, the year in which horrific, mass sexual assaults occurred during 3eed al-fitr (the holiday that follows Ramadan). For five hours, a mob indiscriminately attacked women on a busy Cairo street. For five hours, the police did nothing. It still makes me sick to think about it.

Following this incident, if you had asked me what leads to such a high prevalence of sexual harassment in the Arab world, I would have responded that sexual frustration was the cause. In a trend particularly well-documented in Egypt, but prevalent across the Middle East and North Africa, young people increasingly postpone marriage (and thus licit sexuality) due to the rising costs of starting a household. I would have argued that the licit gives way to the illicit, hence the rise in sexual harassment and sexual assault. (It's worth noting here that a reported 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women experience harassment on a daily basis in Cairo.)

Since I left Cairo, I've read more and thought critically about my own experiences, not just in the Middle East and North Africa but in the US as well. Slowly but surely, I've revised my opinion, and come to the conclusion that unwanted, unsolicited sexual advances, whether these advances are in the form of words, gaze, or assault, are an exertion of power, not sexual desire. Men, by harassing women, demonstrate that they hold the power to belittle, to grope, to rape, and that we, as recipients, are powerless to stop them.

To paraphrase this wonderful post (which does a great job of analyzing the dynamics of street harassment in the Arab world): Sexual harassment is a reflection of male privlidge. It is condoned through societal norms, particularly society's unwillingness to protect victims and punish offenders.

How do these ideas apply to the Moroccan context? Firstly, it's hard to argue with the assertion that Arab states, Morocco included, are patriarchal. Family is perhaps the paramount social institution (often, multiple generations live together under one roof), and within the family roles and authority are clearly defined: Younger members defer to older ones, women defer to men. Women are, first and foremost, wives and mothers, roles which relegate women to the home, whereas men have freedom of mobility. This structure leads to what Kandiyoti refers to as the "patriarchal bargain": younger women buy into a social structure that restricts and subordinates because someday, as older matriarchs, they will be able to restrict and subordinate the wives of their sons.

However, this system is contingent upon the ability of the patriarch to provide for those who defer to his authority, and, as economic structures shift and women increasingly take jobs outside the home (which used to be a strictly male domain), men no longer hold the power they once did. The patriarchal bargain is in crisis, and this threatens both men and women. Men display "frustration and humiliation at being unable to fulfill their traditional role and the threat posed by women's greater spatial mobility and access to paid employment," (taken from "Islam and Patriarchy" by Deniz Kandiyoti, in Women in Middle Eastern History, 46), while women are unclear of the alternatives, and if these alternatives are superior to the bargain they've already struck.

I think Kandiyoti's analysis provides a compelling explanation for why street harassment is so out of control in Cairo: Young men are frustrated that they can't achieve the role that's expected of them. They feel impotent and powerless, and, by harassing women on the streets, they both prove to themselves that they do have the power to subordinate, and they also attempt to revert to the old model, where public space was almost exclusively male. These problems of male frustration and unfulfilled expectations exist in Morocco as well, although, in my purely observational opinion, they are less rampant here than in Cairo.

Sexual harassment here is socially condoned through the rationale that it is complimentary: women put effort into their appearance to attract male attention, and many women would be upset if they didn't receive said attention. Maybe it's true that some women seek out positive re-enforcement in the form of male attention, but consent from one woman doesn't equal consent from all women. To assume that we all thrive on your positive re-enforcement is degrading.

It's incredibly frustrating, a feeling which is only compounded by the seeming lack of understanding on the part of Moroccan men.

Anyways, I think now would be a good time to view this situation in a comparative context: it's interesting to turn the tables and apply a similar critique to American culture. As my female readers can probably confirm, sexual harassment frequently occurs in the US as well. I have been groped on the subway, catcalled at by construction workers, and followed for blocks by men who wouldn't relent. And I've heard the same excuse ("It was a compliment.") from American men.

To put it bluntly, we, as Americans, live in a rape culture, a society "in which rape is everyday, common place, and allowed through basic attitudes and beliefs about gender, sexuality, and violence." (This quote is from a video developed by Chicago teens, which explores the pervasiveness of sexual violence in our society. I highly recommend you watch it.)

Don't believe me? Here are some examples of normalized violence against women, all from the past six months or so:
  • In the recently-released film Observe and Report, a women is raped for comedic effect. I suppose this shouldn't be particularly surprising, since the film's predecessor of sorts, Superbad, revolved around two teenage boys attempting to obtain alcohol so that they can get two young women drunk enough to take advantage of them.
  • During the recent trial of a serial rapist, the defense attorney repeatedly emphasized that the victims were sex workers, as if their profession mitigates the horrific crimes the defendant committed.
  • Following Chris Brown's highly-publicized assault of Rihanna, a poll of Boston-area teens revealed that nearly HALF felt Rihanna was to blame for the abuse she suffered.
  • In another recent rape trial, the judge questioned the veracity of the victim's claims because of the sexual position the attack took place in.
  • When a man exposed himself to a woman on a New York subway, she took a photo with her cell phone and brought it to the police, where she was informed that this "was not a police matter." (This activist group in NYC encourages women to take photos of offenders and email them to the site. They are rad.)
These are not isolated instances, but are reflective of a broader culture that tells men it's okay to take advantage, that consent is not necessary, and that we as women have somehow brought this behavior upon ourselves. It is real and it is prevalent. While the experiences are not be identical (and the Moroccan one is certainly more persistent and jarring), they are both are reflective of a power structure that puts men first.

This post is long, rambling, and not particularly coherent. Unfortunately, I don't have any brilliant prescriptions for positive change. I hope, if anything, I've inspired you all to examine how consent is depicted in American media and popular culture. Regardless, thanks for making it through my sprawling ruminations.

18 comments:

Jillian said...

Excellent, excellent post - and one of the best analyses I've found recently on the subject. I've actually been trying to get a group of perspectives from bloggers in the ME&NA for a project I'm working on - would you potentially be interested in contributing?

Charlotte said...

I think you are absolutely right, and this is a great analysis - sexual harassment is all about power. Masculinity in the Arab world is associated with dominance and independence - two things most Arab men find as impossible to achieve as many women do, within the patriarchal structure of society. As a result, they act out - toward those whom they feel they can exert some kind of power over: women. This entire question of sexual harassment has been intriguing me ever since I first came to Morocco, I wrote a few posts about it myself (http://bisahha.blogspot.com/2009/06/men-are-from-mars-women-are-from-venus.html) - and yours totally hit home with me when I read it!

Emma said...

Elizabeth, wanted to let you know how much I'm enjoying reading your blog entries - they're quite thought provoking. Am looking forward to reading more! xox.

louladekhmissbatata said...

Excellent post! Thanks
Loula

Miranda said...

Wow, this is very though-provoking. I am considering traveling to Morocco and I'm trying to figure out if there is anything I need to know before I go.

Do you have any tips on how to prevent sexual harassment? Also, how hard it it to get contraceptives, medical help etc in case anything happens?

Liz said...

Miranda- First of all, I hope you read my piece thoroughly enough to pick up on my argument that sexual harassment is prevalent in the U.S., as well.

No, there isn't much you can do to prevent harassment, particularly if you're obviously foreign. Some of my tips- Wear sunglasses so you're not forced to make eye contact. Also, keep headphones in, even if your music is off. It deters harassers.

You seem to be implying that violent sexual assault is common in Morocco. I'm not sure where you got this idea; I would guess rape is more common in the U.S. than in Morocco. Nevertheless, I always recommend people travel with the Morning After Pill, just in case. While it's available in Morocco, it's efficacy reduces with time, so it's good to bring your own supply.

ALI said...

Dear Elizabeth,
I salute you for such an excellent post! I am a Moroccan man and you certainly have opened my eyes on a number of issues...though I think you were a little bit too harsh on us Moroccan men.
The Moroccans are slowly adjusting to the rapid social changes brought about by women venturing into male-dominated fields. This accompanied with the rift between the two sexes that existed for a long time and its effect on their understanding of each other causes such problems. Traditions have long prevented men interacting directly with women until the 1960s which created a certain dysfunctional relationship btw the two.
Most young men who exhibit such behavior lack the means and know-how in dealing with the other sex who remains a mystery. Love and sex are or were a taboo and teens learn about women mostly through peers and/or porn- sexual education is/was nonexistant!
As for the sexual frustration not being the reason behind such behaviour, I completely agree with you. Premarital relationships are becoming the norm here so much so that worryingly many young kids at the age of 14 onward are becoming sexually active with no guidance or protection!- yet this did not stop sexual harrassment.

Having said that, in the past few years I have noticed a sharp drop in this behaviour especially in the west of the kingdom and in touristy cities. Thus, there is hope for us after all.

Regard,
Ali B.
PS. I loved every post on your blog! Keep up the great work!

latifa said...

Excellent post. Im actually a student living in Casablanca, Morocco, and was at first shocked at the daily sexual harassment that I face here. But now Ive almost gotten used to it, and that makes me really furious, because I can no longer take a walk without being harassed, and I shouldn't be used to it. I wish there was something to do about it, but there is nothing. I completely agree with you about it being all about male power, and not really about sexual desire. I noticed that a lot of these men usually just say something offensive almost just so they can say it: Just passing by, without even looking you in the face, they will throw a remark at you. Had it been about sexual desire like their comment suggests, they would have pursued you.
I actually came across your blog because I was researching for a documentary I plan to do about sexual harassment in Morocco. This really helped. I'll keep in touch in case I have any further questions.
Regards,
Latifa

Eliana said...

Wonderful. Not the subject of course, that's just sad, but it's wonderful that you're talking about this. So many of my experiences in Cairo and Fez seem to mirror yours, and it's truly something to see them being talked about with the sternness they deserve.

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