Women get harassed here, just like in the rest of the world
A woman I know was driving in Abu Dhabi recently when a young Emirati male driver, who had a friend in the car, tried to block her way. He drove towards her in a dangerous manner and stopped his car in front of hers. She asked him to move – and he did, although his vehicle was still too close to hers, so she couldn’t move forward. Sensing he had trapped her, the driver opened his car window and started to repeat his phone number to her. The woman says she is still outraged by the incident a few weeks later.
This is not an isolated incident. Almost every young woman I know has stories of being harassed in public places. Like in many other countries, harassment happens to women of all different ages and backgrounds. It happens at night and during the day. It happens on the street, in car parks, at supermarkets and shopping malls. It doesn’t matter how a woman is dressed or how she looks, some men feel they have the power to stand in her way.
The reaction to the viral video of Shoshana B Roberts, who was harassed 108 times over 10 hours as she walked around New York City has been extraordinary. The video of her experience, recorded surreptitiously by filmmaker Rob Bliss, has been viewed 30 million times since it was released five days ago. It is currently YouTube’s most watched video in the UAE and shows how street harassment is viewed casually.
The fact that harassment does not happen here to the same extent as in many other countries does not make it any more acceptable. We need to acknowledge that we have the same problem before we look at possible solutions.
Because of such incidents, many parents ask their daughters to stay away from certain places to avoid getting into a difficult situation. In doing so, they deny women their basic rights.
The problem lies in the way we raise our children. How many parents talk to their boys and teach them how to treat women properly? How many of them emphasise the importance of showing respect to women as human beings?
The woman in the car did not court attention when she was driving. While I know that some women perceive random attention from strangers as compliments, I know many women who blame themselves, thinking that something in their behaviour or the way they dressed might have brought men’s attention to them.
Many of these women told me that they don’t even know how to respond and so they just ignore harassers, which can either put them off, or by contrast, make them more determined to get a reaction. In many cases they continue to follow these women and insisted on giving them their phone numbers.
Responding to such harassment can carry its own risks, as it could be perceived as a willingness from the woman to interact with the aggressor.
Frequently encountering this can affect women’s psychological well-being. Random comments from strangers make women feel nervous, angry and vulnerable. They also leave a feeling of fear that continues afterwards, like in the case of the woman I know, who says that she does not wish to return to the area of Abu Dhabi where the incident happened.
To solve this problem we need to come up with a strategy to address it. We cannot stop street harassment once and for all, but we can reduce the number of cases.
A smartphone app called Hollaback has allowed users in New York and several other cities around the world to report incidents of harassment in order to encourage women to file complaints. Simply seeing a digital map showing the extent of harassment can be an eye-opener.
A similar map in the UAE would also help to better understand the problem and know the extent that it occurs in this society. Most people, especially men, would be shocked to discover quite how prevalent it is.
We can either move on in our lives, pretending that harassers are just “being boys”, or we can face the reality and act firmly to change it.