Being stared or yelled at by men is just part of the experience for women working and living across Asia and the Middle East.
Lewd stares distressing for women
Hey, woman, wash my clothes!" "How much do you cost?" When I heard men shout these insults on two separate occasions as I walked down the street in Kabul and Abu Dhabi, respectively, I was stung. Being stared or yelled at is just part of the experience of working and living in this region. But I never get used to it. Indeed women all over Asia and the Middle East are harassed constantly.
Western women are targets, but so are our Arab, Indian, Nepali, Bangladeshi and Pakistani sisters. We are stared at, called names and sometimes assaulted by men. Which is why part of me cheered when Al Bawadi Mall in Al Ain announced earlier this week that labourers had been banned on weekday evenings and weekends following a litany of complaints about harassment. The Emirates is the most female-friendly country in the Middle East. The Government's efforts to encourage women to use public spaces is admirable. The Abu Dhabi beach was quickly divided into two sections last year after women expressed their discomfort at gangs of labourers roaming about and leering. Emirati men are courteous. They never stare.
By contrast, sexual harassment levels in Egypt are endemic. In the Punjab and Karachi, images of women on billboards are defaced or just banned. When I lived in Kabul, cars with men at the wheel occasionally raced in my direction and swerved out of the way just before hitting me. A British-Asian friend of mine was once pushed into a ditch of raw sewage on her way home from a press conference in the Afghan capital. The Taliban used to say a woman's place was in the home or the graveyard.
Across the region this message is given in many variations, but the gist is aggressive and clear: respectable women do not belong in the public sphere. And those who venture outside the home are objects of scorn or fascination. There is certainly an element of racism and snobbery in Al Bawadi Mall's decision. The labourers are poor South Asians and Arabs. Although it may be offensive to westerners, in some Asian cultures staring is normal behaviour. It is a popular pastime in India and Pakistan, where people stare at others to see what they are buying or wearing.
Many of the labourers in the Emirates have also had little exposure to the outside world because they are from small towns. When they move here, it is often their first contact with the rich and developed world. They have a natural curiosity about the way westerners live because they have snatched glimpses of it in films. European and North American expatriates have a lifestyle labourers can never hope to attain, and wandering around a mall on a hot Friday afternoon is an opportunity to experience that which embodies all the wealth, glamour and power of the West: the mobile phones, the high-definition televisions, men in clean, pressed suits, women in skimpy clothes.
I can't blame them for that. But the way many of them look at women is not the glance stolen by the man sitting across from you on the train in London, New York or Rome. In the West a stony look is enough to put an end to that. Instead it is a penetrating gaze that goes right to your core, combining lecherousness, intense curiosity or just hatred. It is sometimes accompanied by clicking noises meant to get a woman's attention. It is humiliating.
The images of the riches of the developed world beamed from satellite TV also send a second message: western women are easy. This is the fault of Hollywood films featuring bimbos and the proliferation of pornography on the internet. Yet western women are also fascinating because they are considered a third gender. They look like females but have the independence of men. Men who have no shame at leering at women make clear distinctions between those who deserve respect and those who do not.
This view reveals itself in small ways. When I wear long, loose tunics and trousers it is much easier to flag a taxi in Abu Dhabi. Drivers will invariably stop for women in abayas or, even better, the niqab, because they are perceived as modest and good. But the drivers sometimes breeze past a woman in a dress with spaghetti straps because they assume she has no self-respect. I have two wardrobes: one I wear in places like Egypt, Afghanistan and India; the other I reserve for parts of Dubai and Europe.
Many women wear a hijab to prevent unwanted attention but it doesn't always work. In Egypt , harassment is part of daily life. In 2006, women in Cairo organised a demonstration with the slogan "the street is ours" to protest about the groping and taunting. In the 1990s, Moroccan women went on strike for the same reason. Afghan women wear a burqa for safety: it is a barrier between them and the abuse. I sometimes wished I had one to slip over my head.
The concept of respect and the presence of a woman in public are linked. In most parts of South and West Asia and the Middle East, there are few opportunities for women to work outside the home, and education is partly to blame. Only half of women in the Arab world are literate, and just 45 per cent of South Asian women can read and write. Female activists across the region have to battle the idea that the only role fit for a woman is to raise a family and that she should never leave the house unless she has permission from her father or husband. As a result, women make up only 15 per cent of the membership in Asia's parliaments, and in Arab countries just eight per cent of parliamentarians are female, according to the UN Arab Human Development Report 2005.
In Afghanistan, when I stopped at villages to talk to people, word would get out that a single woman was on the street and I soon found myself being followed by dozens of men pointing and whispering. They would often point at my pen: the image of a lone woman writing in an illiterate society was alluring. If they are allowed an education, in many Muslim societies children are segregated from an early age. Girls are covered from head to toe and they are taught that any interaction between the sexes before marriage is forbidden. Marriages are arranged in their late teens and there are no opportunities for the sexes to mix.
As they grow older, boys fetishise the female body so even a glimpse of an ankle or a wrist is tantalising. As adults, living in labour camps in the Emirates, they have no contact with wives back home, but there are plenty of Bollywood films for distraction with scenes of pouting girls in clinging wet saris dancing in the rain to heighten the excitement. By the time they encounter a blonde woman in jeans buying chicken at Carrefour ... well, it all becomes too much.
In Kuwait, women have been trying to resist efforts at segregating men and women in schools to prevent this fetishisation. It would be easy to blame the lechery on the rise of political Islam, which emphasises a traditional role for women and the need to protect women's honour by limiting their mobility and access to the public sphere. But a colleague in Cairo once told me that she enjoyed going to Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations because the crowds of men always respectfully parted to allow her through.
Most of the men here who leer at women know it is wrong. They are from cultures where they are taught to avert their eyes when they see a girl, out of respect for her father and brothers. I recently moved house and hired a moving company, staffed by Indian and Bangladeshi workers. The foreman in charge was more interested in watching my movements than doing his own job. I finally snapped. "Why don't you get on with your work? What if someone stared at your sister like that?"
When it becomes too much I create a mental buffer zone to tune out the calls and stares. If that doesn't work I try the shoe trick. When the offender shouts an insult, I stop, point at his shoes and laugh. It subtly shifts the balance of power. And I won't get arrested. firstname.lastname@example.org