x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Why harassment is never acceptable

A little while ago I read an article about the city council in New York trying to bring awareness to the issue of street harassment. Unlike in many other cities, and even some countries, there are virtually no statistics available on this problem in New York.

A little while ago I read an article about the city council in New York trying to bring awareness to the issue of street harassment. Unlike in many other cities, and even some countries, there are virtually no statistics available on this problem in New York. I blame that on the common misconception that street harassment is the price women pay for living here - or in any big city.

The panel concluded that the steps towards eliminating street harassment would be a citywide study that would focus on the impact of it, a public information campaign directed at both genders explaining that harassment is unacceptable, and a school awareness campaign.

I agree that awareness is probably the first step. Whether they engage in cat calling or not, men just don't understand the extent to which street harassment harms women. The real problem is what we deem acceptable in society. This begins with educating men about how disrespectful such harassment is, and letting women know that they don't have to take it.

Whenever I hear "Oh she's wearing a short skirt, she deserves it", I get highly offended. Why on earth does she deserve it?

The double standard exasperates me. In summer in New York it's not uncommon for men to walk around shirtless and no one looks twice. But a woman in a short dress is a "skank" and deserves what she gets. Yes, showing a lot of skin will get attention, but that doesn't mean that harassment is justified.

Advertising, music, movies and magazines encourage us from a young age to look and act and dress a certain way. Almost all the front covers of women's magazines trumpet how they can help us to lose weight, dress "Hollywood" and ooze sexuality.

Yet if a woman follows such advice, we're appalled at how much leg she shows.

Nothing annoys me more than the idea that someone deserves harassment, especially when the problem is a result of social expectations. Moreover, I know a lot of women who are made to feel uncomfortable and embarrassed while walking in the mall or in the streets although they do not wear scandalous outfits.

I experience some form of it almost every time I leave my house, no matter if I walk to the corner in my hoodie to buy a bagel or whether, on visits back to the UAE, I'm sipping coffee in Marina Mall clad in my unembellished abaya.

I don't appreciate being objectified.

According to national statistics provided by a street harassment expert at the New York city council meeting, 90 per cent of women surveyed in the United States have experienced some form of harassment by the age of 19 and one in four by the age of 12. Seventy-five per cent of women have been followed.

A friend of mine says the US First Amendment allows him "freedom of speech". Well, what about my right to be left alone and feel safe? In New York men often have no conception of personal space - they get in your face, follow you or even try to touch you.

The appalling notion that women have to accept being hit on and harassed is not only objectionable but also dangerous. Although some men may think that yelling "Hey baby" on the street is harmless, it can become a gateway that makes other forms of violence against or subordination of women seem OK.

If a man wants to talk to a woman - or even compliment her - he needs to learn how to do so respectfully. Doing otherwise demeans both women and men.

Fatima al Shamsi is an Emirati who lives in New York.