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Those 'little' sexist comments lead to a culture of misogyny

A tolerance of misogynistic behaviour in any form fosters an environment in which some men will feel empowered to behave even worse.

Laura is a beautiful woman. But, when she was looking for a job recently, it should have mattered more that she is very intelligent, holds a PhD and has more than 15 years of experience in the corporate world.

When my friend decided to move back to the Middle East to take care of her ailing parents, she applied for jobs in Lebanon and received several return calls. In the next few days, Laura - who, for obvious reasons, prefers to keep her surname anonymous - had three interviews for senior positions. Most of the meetings were conducted by men, although sometimes in the presence of a woman from human resources.

Then she remembered why she had left the Middle East.

The first question that was asked of her was whether she was single. When she refused to answer, saying that it was not relevant, the interviewer would "joke" that "such a beautiful woman must be breaking hearts everywhere".

In another interview, the man who would have been her manager leered at her and quipped: "Having such a beautiful woman working for me will brighten my office."

Laura was lucky, in the sense that she wasn't desperate because she had savings from previous jobs, so she turned every offer down.

"If I was a male candidate, they would have never asked me about my marital status, where I live and my personal life," she told me later. "They would have kept the interview specific to qualifications." As an experienced professional, she would of course know.

Woman have become so accustomed to the daily objectification in professional settings that many think it is normal. But for Laura, who has worked in the United States, this behaviour is unacceptable, and she knows better than to accept unprofessional conduct.

Women need to remember - if they feel uncomfortable, there is a reason. Don't ignore it.

My friend's case is just an example of the subtle - or often very unsubtle - daily sexism that many women experience in the Arab world. Inappropriate behaviour is dismissed as "men just being men".

This kind of sexism may be so commonplace that it goes almost unnoticed, but it is impossible to deny the connection to events that do make the news. A tolerance of misogynistic behaviour in any form fosters an environment in which some men will feel empowered to behave even worse.

The charges heard in court just from the past month, although anecdotal, are nonetheless disturbing: a woman sexually assaulted at a religious study centre in Abu Dhabi; a 13-year-old girl assaulted by a delivery man; another woman who says she was dragged out of her car while at a petrol station. Several women told The National they were groped while celebrating National Day on Abu Dhabi Corniche, although they did not report it to police.

It is important to note that not all of the accused men in these cases are Arab - every country and culture struggles with its own issues of misogyny and sexual assault.

But we know that there is a stigma here that contributes to the problem. A 2010 survey conducted by The National and YouGov Siraj found that most women in the UAE had misgivings about reporting sexual abuse to authorities. Part of the reason is that women who report a rape are often investigated for consensual sex outside of wedlock even before the assault charges are resolved.

In most countries, even in the West, it is estimated that less than half of sexual assault cases are reported because victims fear the stigma. It is unbelievable that many societies still perceive rape victims as suspects, and not victims.

I have met and interviewed several rape victims, and I have seen their anguish and isolation. And I have seen this same anguish up close in my personal life.

When I was a teenager growing up in Saudi Arabia, one of my dearest friends was raped by her uncle in her own home. She tried to commit suicide by jumping off the roof of her house, then lied about it to everyone, saying she had slipped.

The story finally came out from her nanny, who knew something was wrong. After three of us visited our friend at the hospital, the story came out - and it all made sense. Our friend had gone from being strong and outspoken to introverted and shying away from contact even with her female friends.

For some reason, none of us wanted to tell our parents. We also felt scared and ashamed. But when my friend's mother did find out, thankfully, she became a champion. The uncle never ended up in court, but he was banned by the family and shunned. My friend struggled for years with the scars of abuse, but she is married now and doing well.

There is no comparison to the psychological damage suffered by victims of sexual abuse, but there are faint echoes of the same harm in every misogynistic remark.

In my friend Laura's case, she brushed the loutish behaviour off. But my less confident friends who have also been subjected to sexist and chauvinistic behaviour? I see them walking with their eyes glued to the floor, or changing their clothing to avoid attracting attention. Some have stopped smiling in public - if you smile, they think, men will think you are "interested".

I know some female journalists who use this to their "advantage", flirting to get a story. But why should we accept this exchange just to do our jobs?

In October, we saw a glimpse of this. Egypt's information minister, Salah Abdel Maksud, told Dubai TV news show host Zeina Yazjy: "I hope your questions won't be as hot as you." Without hesitation, she replied: "My questions may be hot but I am the opposite, I'm very cold."

It is a lesson every man should learn: if you're a lout, women will treat you that way.

 

rghazal@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @arabianmau

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