“Do you really expect us to believe you did not enjoy it?” So was a colleague’s response when I stomped one day into office venting about some trashy male who harassed me on the bus. My exact words were: “You do not need money and peace to have good conduct.”
In Syria, people have developed a habit of blaming everything on the war and poverty, from people spitting in the streets to outrageous taxes and hate speech, even though most of our current social issues have been prevalent for at least a decade before the war even put on its socks.
While women in the developed world are finding ways and forming allies to fight and end sexual harassment in the workplace, women in Syria find it almost impossible to do as little as speak of the harassment they face on the streets and public transportation.
This means we have a long, long way to go before we are a tiny bit close to developing our own #MeToo hashtag—that would be #wa_ana_aydan in Arabic. The topic is even laughed off in our dramas and never mentioned in the press as if it does not exist.
It is everywhere, and especially in the workplace.
Women never come forward, and I bet you know most of the reasons but it is more complicated in this part of the world to the point that, I assure you, most Arab men who read this article—or its title since most Arabs don’t read beyond that—will assume I’m inviting them to harass me.
1) Many women learned to be helpless in the face of sexual harassment.
Encyclopedia Britannica defines the psychological term “learned helplessness” as “a mental state in which an organism forced to bear aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are escapable, presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation.”
From an early age, girls are taught to keep quiet and surrender when it comes to sexual harassment. A girl might tell her mother, who, in turn, instructs her to hush up about it or her reputation—and, subsequently, her life—will be ruined.
Many mothers also teach their daughters that harassment is an unavoidable ‘boy thing’—this is called trivializing sexual assault—and it is a girl’s duty to not put herself in situations where she could get harassed or assaulted.
Sounds to me like a girl ought to lock herself in an isolated room for the rest of her life—and, no, this has nothing to do with what you wear because a large portion of the Syrian public despises modesty and finds it ‘regressive’ from their shallow perceptions. This same portion will, nevertheless, blame a woman for getting assaulted.
There are women who had tolerated a lifetime of sexual harassment but never came forward and never did anything to change the situation as they believed this was just how the world is. Even when a woman does come forward, you all know she gets the blame, loses her job, creates a scandal and gives her rivals something to chew on for decades, urging more women to keep quiet about sexual harassment.
Gist: It is your duty as a girl or woman not to get harassed because boys cannot control their feral conduct and desires. If it happens, you just surrender to it and pretend it never happened (If only there was a sarcasm font).
2) It is a boys’ club everywhere… with girl members.
Every workplace is a boys’ club in Syria even with a majority of women working at it, and even though every boy wants to take the other boy down, when it comes to sexual harassment, they form allies against the target because they feel exposed.
Whenever a woman reports a man for harassment, every man in the room fears that he’s next, so they turn the woman into the predator and attack her, and for some reason, most women in my country are not big on forming allies with their own gender. In fact, they would rather see one another get eaten alive, giving more power and even support to boys’ clubs.
Two men in a workplace for at least 20 women means that the woman who comes forward about sexual harassment should kiss her job and reputation goodbye. She won’t be able to stay either way because she’ll expect a shaming/bullying campaign against her afterward.
Coming out about sexual harassment in Syria is a lonely business. I speak from experience.
3) You guessed it; women will always get the blame for sexual assault.
I was once told by a manager who claimed to be so liberal he despised modest women that ‘I had a problem with sexual harassment.’ He also said with a grimace that made his chimp-like face even more horrid: “What exactly is your problem with sexual harassment?”
I can’t believe I am so regressive I actually fight sexual harassment! And especially in the workplace? I really need professional help.
The first time I reported sexual harassment was in Saudi Arabia, but my manager at the time was Syrian. He helped me file a report only because he wanted the job of the guy who harassed me, but he never got it. However, after he helped me out, he said to me: “You must have led him on, and I bet you loved it.”
He has two daughters and I really hope they enjoy getting sexually harassed by their coworkers.
Every woman can relate to this. Some women might even lose their jobs and get accused of being trouble-makers, which no career woman would find flattering. I’ve been through it and hated it, but not as much as I hated getting harassed and keeping quiet about it. My mother taught me to speak up, and speak up I shall.
4) A woman will get bullied by her assaulter into hushing up.
Some of the things an assaulter may say to the target are:
“No one will believe you.”
“They will think I promised to marry you but dumped you.”
“You will be shamed for it.”
All of which are, unfortunately, true. Therefore, a woman should be prepared for all this nonsense when she makes the decision to speak up.
I heard all of these but I did not give a rat’s a$$. Harassers are always unattractive folk with self-esteem problems, which is part of why they hate women. Knowing that, you should be sure that whoever accuses you of leading them on or liking them is a sick person who wants to get back at you, sabotage your job or ruin your reputation, nothing more.
I personally felt more empowered every time I spoke up even though many people preyed on the story.
I know it is far from easy to come forward about sexual harassment anywhere in the world, but I honestly wish for the next generation of women in Syria to feel safer and more respected and appreciated in the workplace, and the first step towards fixing any problem is to recognize that there is one—which, in our case, has turned into an epidemic.
Very recently, I have seen three Syrian women from Damascus share posts condemning sexual harassment in the street; a move that I highly commend.
However, the biggest mistake is to focus all efforts on teaching women how to defend themselves. Yes, this is part of addressing the issue, but a more sustainable plan would include teaching boys from an early age about positive manliness as well as promoting it among men. Nowadays, chivalry is endangered and the best remedy for harassment issues is to cultivate chivalry and positive manliness.