As Jordanian Women Leave the Home, Sexual Harassment Reaches Unprecedented Levels
Every morning, miriam* 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 harassment in a way that leads to genuine change.
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“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 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.”
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