x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Ask any woman - harassment is far too common in society

India is not the only country where women are sometimes harrassed ¿ and worse ¿ in public.

When people overseas ask me what it is like to live and work as a woman in the UAE, I tell them it's great. "I'm so lucky," I say. "Men can only talk to men. I can talk to men and women anywhere. I have more freedom."

Men are extremely kind and respectful, I say. When you are a woman, people assume it is a responsibility to protect you. I actually feel safer here than anywhere, I say. I can walk around at 10pm and I am surrounded by family picnics. It's great, really.

I am, of course, being one-sided.Actually, it's worse than that. I am being dishonest with myself.

There is a reason men feel the need to be protective.

Over the past month, the world has watched in sadness and anger as India has been racked by a rape crisis and the subsequent debate about the inappropriately named "Eve teasing", or sexual harassment that is so common in the subcontinent. But we must acknowledge - and deal with - the same offensive behaviour in our region, and even here at home in the UAE.

When I landed at Dubai airport for the first time, I boarded a bus with my mother, her colleagues and their families. At one point during the drive to our hotel, a group of men began following our bus. They drove alongside my window and pointed a laser pen at me and flashed their phone number.

I was 13. I looked 13. Maybe 12. I did not understand what was happening. My mum pulled the curtains.

A few days later, a family friend told me to stop smiling at men. It encourages them, she said.

Encourages them to do what? I wondered. Why would it be a problem to smile?

At age 13, incidents like these became a routine part of life.

At school I got in trouble a lot more than my male friends. Sometimes we would do the same thing. Sleep in class, talk in class or laugh too loudly. But it was always me who got in trouble. Maybe it was my personality. Thinking back on it as an adult, I wonder if maybe it had nothing to do with me at all.

A frustrated teacher once told our class: "I have said it before and I will say it again, women are the source of evil. All that is bad." We laughed and laughed.

All of my female friends have stories, about men from all nationalities and backgrounds. It is one of the few commonalities that cross all cultural and social barriers here.

We joke about it. Like that time when I was 16 and the man at a fast food counter mimed squeezing breasts, made a sucking noise and told me I had nice earlobes. Hilarious, right? Right?

Or what about when I was 14 and a man who saw me at the grocery store started to call my house. Repeatedly. We had never met. He told me he had my number "by magic".

When I returned from university to live here on my own, I had to contend with a series of doormen who questioned me when a male friend or relative came to my flat, even if it was my brother. Many things had changed in the five years that I had been away. Common attitudes towards women had not.

At one of my first interviews, a senior official locked his office door when I sat down. He said: "You play sports? You have a very sporty body." I was wearing trousers, a scarf and a long shirt. Not that it should have mattered.

It has nothing to do with appearance. My hair has been every colour and length. It makes no difference if I wear a T-shirt and jeans or a traditional Emirati dress.

Daily marriage proposals mercifully dried up when I turned 25, but friends from 16 to 60 are hassled when they step onto the street.

Larger cities are a relief from the constant commentary of "how are you baby? Very, very nice", but I know women in cities are commonly groped and pinched. It is exhausting. I am tired of men who guess my nationality as if it will be a passport to my bedroom.

It is easy to blame ourselves. Maybe I was too friendly. Maybe I was dressed wrongly. Maybe I shouldn't have been there. Maybe it was easy for him to interpret my love of hummus as a desire for a tryst.

As I write this, my phone has rung three times - it's one of these unwanted "suitors". I met this man 11 months ago and we spoke for less than three minutes about fish.

I do not tell male friends or family about these calls. Some days, I wish I were a man, or that I had no gender at all. I wish I could just walk around and smile and that would be it.

 

azacharias@thenational.ae