My name is Iman Amrani. I am a 21 year old British Algerian, Algerian for the part of my father. I was born in Camden, London, and I grew up in the pretty city of Cambridge. Today I have decided to write a blog about a subject that I am very passionate about, and which I felt the need to express myself on. Sexual harassment.
I have grown up in the UK with a great deal of exposure to Arab culture, and I lived in the Dominican Republic for one year when I was 18 working in a Haitian settlement close to the border of Haiti. I am currently living and working in Bogota, Colombia, teaching English in a prestigious private university as part of my compulsory year abroad, required for my degree, BA Philosophy and Spanish, which I am reading at the University of Leeds.
I have experienced varying degrees of sexual harassment in every environment and culture that I have encountered, and today I felt like it was time to finally address some of these, and communicate my feelings on the subject. For too long it has just been another part of every day life, an aspect which I have either accepted or endured as “normal”, but after one too many distasteful experiences, I feel it necessary to speak out and share some of the issues that I and countless other women have faced in the street, in the workplace, and in countless other places.
Pakistan hit the news at the beginning of the month when a women-only park was opened in Lahore. People were jumping up on blogs and the comment section in the papers, having their say about the oppression of women in segregated societies, having a cheeky dig at the oppression of women in Islamic countries. Egypt also drew attention in the media this week, as commentators referred to the issues of sexual harassment against women during the Eid festivities. I have a lot of respect for the sisters speaking out against the problem, but I feel it is necessary to not view sexual harassment as an issue isolated in Muslim or Arab cultures. Harassment affects women around the world, regardless of nationality, race, class or sexuality, and it is important that we address it and speak out against it.
When I was in Rio a couple of weeks ago, I was surprised to see bright pink cabins (they were rather pretty actually) in the metro, that were exclusively for women during rush hour – 6am-9am and 5pm-9pm excluding holidays. No one can tell me that segregation and sexual harassment is solely an Arab/Islamic issue. If there are women only cars then that has to be for a reason. Here in Colombia I was on the bus to work, wearing a dress handed down to me by my Nana. The clue is in the fact that it belonged to her first, so I defy someone to tell that it might have been provocative. During rush hour the buses are very crowded, and a man put his hand up my skirt and tried to stroke my thigh. I was new to Colombia and although I obviously pushed him away, it was scary because you never know how someone might react when you reject their advances.
Anyone female who has been to Notting Hill Carnival will know what I mean. The carnival is a fun few days led by the West Indian community. Families from all backgrounds attend to listen to music and join the festivities, and I really enjoy going, but the experience has been tainted a few times with groups of boys heckling the girls, shouting obscenities or chat up lines, and proceeding to call the girls “fucking bitches” when they have been rejected or simply ignored. This does not just occur at the carnival. One evening I was on the Edgware Road going back to my grandmother’s flat with a friend, when a man who was old enough to be my father shouted at me in the street. He started by complimenting my legs, and I said nothing, but shot him a dirty look, so he proceeded to shout at me “who the fuck do you think you are to look at me like that you fucking whore!?”. I was so angry but there was nothing I could say or do, because I didn’t know who this man was, or more importantly, what he was capable of.
In a far more serious story, my aunt had a young female friend who lived in the States who once rejected a young man’s advances, and he turned around and shot her dead in front of everyone. Now obviously this was an extreme story, but not a unique one, and it shows why it is such a serious issue, and why one might struggle when looking for the appropriate way to respond to harassment.
One of my first experiences of harassment was at my Mum’s side was on my first day of work experience when I was 15. I was doing a two week placement with my step-grandmother at the House of Lords in London, and we had arrived at the grand entrance for visitors, where the cloakroom for the Lords is situated. We were sitting on these plush leather sofas, after being rigorously checked by security, waiting to be met. There was an Arab gentleman also waiting in the same area, with an entourage of people attending to him. He was watching me for a while, and then came over and presented himself. He was an ambassador of some sort, and he told me that he would very much like for me to meet him in his hotel room later on. He handed me his card just as my grandmother swooped in and rescued me. I was 15 years old. It was my first day and I didn’t know how to respond to this man because he was obviously a lot more important than I was and I was scared to cause some great offense and get into trouble before even starting. Of course, I never contacted him, but I could see my Mother was also quite shaken by the experience. I was also wearing the smartest most decent outfit imaginable because of the nature of the work, but this gentleman thought that he could take advantage of my age and his status in order to take liberties.
Another encounter that I had at my Mum’s side When I was about 16 I was crossing a park in Cambridge and there was a group of about four young men, all in their early twenties who were heckling and trying to get my attention. I scurried by and jumped into my Mum’s waiting car, trying not to glance over at them. My mum was asking me how my day had been when this same group of guys, pulled up next to us in their car which had been parked behind us. They rolled the window down and gestured to my Mum to do the same. Not knowing that I didn’t know these guys she complied, and they shouted over asking for my phone number. My Mum was really surprised and asked them if they knew me. They responded “We’re not talking to you, we want to talk to you daughter”. Ma was speechless. She wound up the window and sped away.
Asides from public places, in nearly all of the jobs I have ever undertaken I have had to deal with advances and inappropriate behavior with men I have worked with. In Leeds I needed to get a part time job alongside uni, and as there are around 33,000 students in the city, part time jobs are not always easy to come by. I ended up getting a job first at Tiger Tiger, and then at a German bar called the Bierkeller. In Tiger I worked in the restaurant as a waitress, and I had to deal with randy, rowdy stag do’s, and pervy doormen who worked there. I had a uniform which was a black shirt and black trousers, and there were many other girls sitting at the bars in mini skirts waiting to have a chat, but the guys that came in would speak to any woman they saw in the same way, regardless of how they were dressed, or what they were there to do. I had my legs brushed as I walked past tables serving food, and was propositioned a number of times.
In January there were no more hours after the Christmas rush, so I went to work in the Bierkeller with some of the girls I knew from uni. I was handed a disgusting Heidi style outfit and spent the night rushing around with pitchers of beer for customers. When I was in the kitchen I was stretching to pick up an order off the hot plate and one of my supervisors squeezed my bum. I spun around and cursed him so bad, and sacked the job off soon after. The manager of the Bierkeller once told a Liverpudlian girl who worked with us that he would ask prostitutes to speak to him with a Scouse accent. The levels of harassment there were off the scale.
Even when I worked as a waitress at Cambridge University, in Jesus College, I had to deal with arrogant members of the rugby team who got rowdier with drink over the course of the dinner and dared each other to try and grab the bums of the waitresses going by. So let’s not try to restrict this issue to a certain class or race please.
By far the worst problem I encountered in the workplace was here in Colombia. As I mentioned before, I am working as a language assistant in a prestigious university here. The students at my university come from very well to do families, and the majority of the professors here completed their Masters or PhDs in The United States or in other countries with well known universities. I am by far the youngest member of staff, and one well respected colleague felt like he might be able to take advantage of this. I was invited to a very important dinner with a number of professors from the Theology department, as well as one of the leaders of the Catholic church in Colombia, and the leader of the Greek Orthodox church. This professor had been recommended as an upstanding citizen, a respectful gent, who could help me find the venue as he lived close to where I was staying when I first arrived. I was apprehensive to go with him, but I had little choice, as I had recently arrived and knew nothing about the city. It is a long story, but after attending the meal, this guy had my phone number and would not leave me alone. He was really intense and it was incredibly intimidating, as he is 33 years old, and I felt unable to tell anyone I worked with when he started sending me inappropriate messages. He had almost become a father in the Catholic church, and was perceived to be squeaky clean by all those I work with. They had not heard the way that he talked about the “asses” and “tits” of the exotic “morenas” like Rihanna. The girls I was living with helped me write an email where I told him that I was absoloutely not interested, and that I wanted to be left in peace. This did not work, and I ended up calling my grandmother in the UK in tears. I hd done absolutely nothing to provoke him, and I had told him in no uncertain terms that I wanted him to leave me alone.
Far too often I hear the blame thrown at the woman. For walking provocatively, for dressing in a certain way for having an “intimate gaze”. Let me just clear one thing up for you, Mr Pervert in the street. When I woke up this morning and put on a pencil skirt, I was not thinking about you, nor I did not do so for your benefit. If it is not for her clothes that a woman provokes, it is for being European and the impression that some people have of us, and when dealing with French men it has been for being English. Sometimes it is for being young. Other times simply for looking “nice”. I am sorry, but I can’t and wont be able to address all of these issues that weak men in the street cannot come to terms and deal with. You will learn to respect me, regardless of what I am wearing, but on the pure fact that I hold myself with respect, I respect myself, and I am not disposable to you or any other man, Mr Pervert.
One night I had to get a taxi home in Bogota and the taxi driver asked me if I liked oral sex, and when I refused to respond to him he crudely asked me whether I “liked to have a man use his tongue on my clitoris”. This was one of the most frightening experiences that I had, and he even asked me what kind of panties I was wearing. I could not leave the taxi because there were other potential threats in the street as it was dark, but he would not listen when I told him that I would not discuss engage in discussion with him.
I have told of a few of my experiences, that have affected me and left me feeling angry frustrated, upset and scared. But I am just one girl, and there are many other girls and women who have experienced the exact same things, and very often worse. I think it can be increasingly difficult when you are seen to be confident or successful. I have found that many men have been intimidated by this, and a reflex mechanism has been to respond to me and other independent women I know with a complete lack of respect in order to make up for their own short comings and insecurities. No matter what a man says or does to me, when trying to make me feel uncomfortable or inferior, I will always have less respect for him than he does for me. Always.
I feel that it is important for us to address these issues, to highlight them and speak out against them. I also feel like it is important to have a solidarity between women. I wont call another woman a whore or a bitch because that just weakens the strength of us all, and makes it more acceptable for men to use that kind of language against us. Obviously it is important for a woman to respect herself, and the responsibility lies with each of us to look after ourselves and avoid unnecessarily drawing unwanted attention, but I will not accept that it is OK to disrespect a woman on the grounds of her clothes. It is just not justifiable.
One final word. This is not an attack on all men, nor condemnation targeted at one particular group. There are many men who are not part of this problem, who respect women and in turn are respected. And there are perhaps issues going the other way, with women disrespecting men. That is not my story, and that is not my experience. I cannot speak on behalf of anyone except myself, and I feel like today that is exactly what I have done. I hope my words haven’t offended, and I hope that I have communicated myself well. I also hope that you will keep this in mind when you are with your friends, or raising children, or even thinking of calling out to a girl in the street.
Peace, love and blessings, may you have a good day. x