As Jordanian Women Leave the Home, Sexual Harassment Reaches Unprecedented Levels
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.
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In late 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.”
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