My Daily Experience with Street Harrasment

My Daily Experience with Street Harrasment

Growing up, I was always taught not to walk the streets alone, especially at night, and if I had no choice but to do so, I was taught to walk fast and avoid eye contact to not give men walking around any ideas if I were to unconsciously look at them. I was taught to cross the road if a funny looking man was walking on the same lane “just in case”. I was taught to avoid shortcuts.

I wasn’t just taught this; I saw it happening all around me, to all my girl friends. With age, I slowly realized the small changes that would occur; my older girl friend beginning to wear pants instead of shorts, another friend wearing more closed up shirts rather than V-necks, because she thought that her breasts were now too big and she didn’t want any man to look at her the wrong way or catcall her, or even worse.

Of course, then, I never questioned anything.

I just thought it was normal, something that us girls had to do, that we had to compromise because it was better for our wellbeing. Unfortunately, this has become a norm that we have internalized because of our society. I realized that this supposed reason was a cover up for having our freedom snatched away. Because, whether we like it or not, no matter what we’re wearing, what we’re doing, where we’re going, certain men will always look and catcall, just because they can, because they have the freedom to.

Being catcalled is a daily occurrence towards us women in Lebanon. It’s considered a normal thing, ‘simply harmless’. Yet we’re still taught to compromise our freedom to avoid this supposed harmless thing. Some identify it as ‘Tolteesh’ or even ‘Moghezali’ when they take it as a compliment, instead of plain harassment or ‘Ta7arosh’. Even the name we give it diminishes its actual meaning and importance. Because it’s not ‘simply harmless’, but the opposite.

 In Lebanon, ‘Tolteesh’ on the streets is understood as when a man you don’t know catcalls you, and gives you impolite remarks about your body or your face. When ‘Tolteesh’ comes to our mind, we think, that’s all it is, a stupid whistle or jeer. But it’s much more than that. It is not only the jeer, but how it is said, where it is said, under what settings it is said, and why it is said. The better name for this is ‘Street Harassment’, because it shows that women aren’t simply catcalled, or told ‘stupid remarks’, but rather harassed.

Street Harassment is defined as gender-based harassment in public locations (Kearl 2010, p.5). In other words, men unknown to women harass them in public, and this harassment can take the form of catcalls, threats, or whistles that make them either uncomfortable, afraid, or both. Street harassment can happen to other men and children as well, but this article will focus on the effects it has on women, and the reasons it is done to them in particular. It’s quite ironic how harassment on the streets that occurs due to racism, homophobia, trans phobia, or classicism is known to be offensive behavior, but harassment targeted at women due to sexism is not deemed unacceptable, only ‘annoying’ (p.5).

In certain types of harassment, a man basically invades a woman’s personal space and forces her to react to him (Bowman 1993, p.524). These untimely comments may seem simply obscene, however, there is some underlying violence shown in them (p.526). It should not be taken as lightly as it usually is. It is an international issue that must be taken into consideration and tackled (Kissling 1991, p.452).

While some might think of street remarks as somewhat complimentary or flattering, the context under which they occur implies otherwise (Kissling 1991, p.453). The fact that they occur in a public place, are told by people you don’t know, and are, most of the time, derogatory and disgusting (p.453) shows that there must be some underlying reason as to why men do this. Street remarks usually contain addresses of a woman’s ‘inappropriate’ clothes, or actions, and even parts of her body that should not be talked about so openly and meaninglessly (p.453). These remarks are altered in such a way that they are made to compliment the woman, which is how certain people consider it as ‘Moghezali’. This, however, does not diminish their humiliating meaning. Some women claim that street remarks are dehumanizing, and reduce a woman to merely a sexual object that has no function in life but to please them (p.455).

Because it was such a normal experience for us as women to go through, I never really put much thought into it. Until now.

The main question that reiterated on my mind was ‘Why?’. Why does this happen? Why does a man feel this freedom to act in such a way? Why does one have to be continuously subjected to words that are rude, invasive, and offensive? It’s not as if we whistle at men, or look at them in a predatory way, or catcall them, so why do they find the need to do this to us?

When we walk on the streets, some men stare because, to them, it’s odd to see a woman walking alone, it’s like seeing an elephant moving on a highway, quite absurd. So, they gawk, because, to them, we belong only in private areas like homes, and not on the roads (Bowman 1993, p.526). And this is pretty ironic, considering, despite the fact that certain men think women belong in private areas; they still invade their privacy by intruding in their personal space when women leave their houses (p.526). This in itself leads to women not leaving the house much to avoid such inappropriate intrusion (p.527).

There are several reasons as to why certain men do what they do to women, among them the aforementioned reason above. Another reason could be that Street Harassment is power related, in the sense that certain men do this to reinforce their power and control over our bodies and behavior (Kearl 2010, p.5). A third is the fact that, in Lebanon, there aren’t any laws that prohibit street harassment, so certain men think they can get away with it, and are free to do whatever they please. Also, it’s possible that there are other men who perceive women as merely sexual objects, and feel the freedom to objectify them with their disgusting words.

The main factor that makes all these reasons somewhat similar is the man’s authority. The man’s dominant stance in Lebanon makes it easier for him to be able to have the freedom to do whatever he pleases. It also gives him room to demean women, flaunt his power and control on situations, and on women. This is all due to Lebanon having a patriarchal system. A Patriarchy is a system where males have privileges over females, both clearly and latently (Encyclopedia 2019, paragraph 1). This notion has become embedded within the Lebanese society, culture, attitudes and the like and has become a normalized phenomenon (paragraph 1). The patriarchy gives them the power to act oppressively and get away with it.  

According to Rayan Majed’s ‘Guidebook on Sexual Abuse’ (2017), there are some common misconceptions on why this happens and what ‘Tolteesh’ on the streets consists of. The first one consists of the generic phrase of it being a normal occurrence and non problematic. In other words, people tend to make it seem unimportant when in fact it really is. Second, the notion that because a women wears ‘inappropriate’ clothes, and goes out at night, she’s at fault for getting sexually harassed. A third misconception is equating the notion of flirting with harassment, when in fact there are a lot of factors which differentiate between them, the main one being consent. In other words, certain people believe that when a woman is interested in a man, she’s flirting, but when she’s not; she ‘calls it harassment’. This implies that they do not believe her when she says she was harassed, and it shows that they are downplaying the act of harassment.

Although it’s not recognized in Lebanon, Street harassment goes under the umbrella of sexual harassment, in the form of stalking someone, catcalling them, threatening them, and even staring at them predatorily (Majed 2017, p.4). Seemingly harmless comments or whistles can escalate very quickly and lead to very serious outcomes such as rape, sexual abuse, or even death. The fact that this could be an initiator of such things should clarify the need to act now. Due to it not being stressed on and nothing done about it, it’s indirectly encouraged.

The most general and clear notion of liberty consists of a person having a right to go wherever they want in public locations (Bowman 1993, p.520). So, at the very least, a woman deserves the basic right of walking alone on the streets without being interrupted and harassed. Despite the fact that certain men behave like animals and demean us as women, they are not punished, and walk away unscathed from this disgraceful behavior, while we end up fearing the streets because of their demented threats, and humiliating words (p.522).   

We deserve to walk fearlessly on the streets, and to have the right to go wherever we want, whenever we want. We should not be obliged to compromise our freedom in order to feel safe. And more importantly, we deserve to have control over situations, and over ourselves.