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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

It's more than just your eyes, dickwad

posted by Silvana
Remember that study showing that something like 80% of Egyptian women reported having been sexually harassed? The Washington Post has something of an update to the story. Apparently, some anonymous group has been sending emails telling women that they should wear the veil, because "A veil to protect, or eyes will molest." I'm sure the slogan is much catchier in Arabic--I'd wager it probably rhymes. But either way, it's full of bullshit. The WaPo article talks to some women who say they actually experienced more harassment when they were wearing hijab, and though I can't speak from personal experience, I wouldn't doubt at all that that could be true.

I can't say whether any individual woman would suffer more harassment from one day to the next if she were wearing the veil, although if I lived there, I'd try it as an experiment. But I think this theory is spot-on:
Mona Eltahawy, a 41-year-old Egyptian social commentator who now lives, unveiled, in the United States, said that as a Muslim woman who wore hijab for nine years and was harassed "countless times" in Egypt, she has concluded that the increase in veiling has somehow contributed to the increase in harassment.

"The more women veil the less men learn to behave as decent and civilized members of society,"
This puts the blame for harassement squarely on social conventions, rather than on individual women. Because the fact is, there is no rhyme or reason as to who gets harassed and who doesn't, and what kind of behavior/clothing/location/makeup/companionship you have when you get harassed is totally not determinative. And this doesn't just apply to Egypt, either--it applies everywhere.

I'm on record acknowledging the complexity of the hijab issue, and I would never dream of judging any individual woman's decision to take up the hijab. But I'd be failing if I didn't acknowledge that the aggregate effect of hijab-wearing being the norm is negative.

When you have a majority, or, as in Egypt's case, a super-majority of the women in your society covering their heads, when the very sight of a woman's hair is scandalous while the sight of a man's is not, you create the perception that women's bodies are so inherently sexual that men can not be trusted to refrain from groping and pawing them unless they are hidden from view. This over-sexualization of women's bodies leads to violence against them. It creates a lose-lose situation for women. If you cover up, you are hiding your body, and drawing attention to your femaleness. If you don't cover up, you stick out like a sore thumb and are telegraphing with your lack of action that you are "liberated" woman, and thus, you are fit for public consumption. In other words, you're fucked.

This situation makes me so angry. Especially thinking about all the teenage girls growing up with it, because living in that kind of environment never leaves you. Even though I live in a place where harassment is much less frequent, and I'm much more comfortable confronting people, I'm still on guard all the time. I developed a hyperawareness of people around me, and it won't go away. My heart still speeds up a little when I hear a bicycle behind me. I still automatically tense up whenever someone approaches me or starts a conversation with me in public. I automatically scan every man I pass at night for signs of danger. I cross the street if someone's behind me so I can see them in my peripheral vision. And when I feel like I'm in danger, I construct elaborate scenarios to plan out what I will do if any number of things happen suddenly. At one point when I was younger, I actually practiced screaming after one night where I was grabbed and found myself paralyzed, unable to scream or do anything.

And nothing that serious even happened to me. But the daily drumbeat of the world treating you like you're a piece of meat every time you step out of the house takes a toll on your psyche that nothing can erase.

To think about the millions of girls like me for whom this will also be true, it breaks my heart. Egyptian women, let's all, together, throw off the veil. Let's flood the streets in tank tops and shorts, armed with baseball bats and ready to yell at anyone who cocks a leering eye our way.

Hell, we should do that here.

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