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Intercontinental harasser's club

By Sulaima Al-Homsi.

At the end of the official school hours, I left my school ‘Haydar Qais’ at Al-Qusour neighbourhood[1] in Homs. I walked home, completely innocent with my brown school uniform, my foulard, and the beautiful hair tie that my mother used to creatively make every morning, along with my friends as always.

I saw a familiar face following me, ‘Oh, this is Uncle Mansour? Yay, I will show him the way to our house, I feel like a grownup!’ This was what came to my mind when I was a child of seven. I was feeling happy and bid farewell to my girl-friend at the crossroads. When I approached the door of our building, I felt that man grabbing me, putting his hand over my mouth, and feeling my uniform and trousers. My mind was saying, 'What is this!’ It could not analyse it. This situation was bigger than me! I wondered, ‘Should I scream? I cannot, his hand is tightly shutting my mouth!’ And suddenly his hand let go, and I started to scream. He ran away, and I went upstairs towards my home with the sound of the electric meat (kibbeh) grinder resonating from it. I knocked on the door with trepidation, my mother opened and said, ‘What's wrong with you?!’ I said I was scared, or … did I not answer? I don’t remember anymore! My mother, who got married at the age of 27, which was a "late" age as some describe it, was and will always be my only friend. I felt ashamed to tell her what happened. I don’t know why, but an internal impulse told me not to.

In February 2014, I felt the cold, heavy handcuffs on my hands, wearing the beige ‘manteau’ and the cream hijab in the Political Security branch of Tartous. The engineer who was searching my phone, since I was a ‘terrorist’, asked me: "Are you a girl?’[2] I boldly replied, "Yes, a girl! Why? Do you see me as a boy?!" as if I never learned to hide my innocence. A similar situation was again repeated with one of the guards in the Political Security branch ‘Al-Fayhaa’ in Damascus when they told us that we had a chance to take a shower after a lice infestation which lasted two and a half months. The guard brought us women’s undergarments and started to feel them, and I was looking into his devilish piercing eyes.

Several years later . we fled from Syria to Lebanon, and the same story happened again in the Tripoli[3]-Halba van. I climbed the van after a long day filming a TV report on one of the Syrian camps in northern Lebanon. I carried a tripod that served multiple uses in addition to filming, among them as a weapon with which I drove away harassers in case they approached. I also carried a bag full of camera equipment, and I sat near the window in a seat free of other passengers.

‘Oh, there is a soldier sitting next to the driver, I am sure I will not have any problems on the road…’ I told myself, suppressing all the stories that popped up in my head about these vans. Then a young man got in, left all the empty seats, decided to sit next to me, and sat as close as possible. I used a technique we women usually use when we put our bags as barriers to keep men from getting too close to us, but that didn't stop him from coming closer, again and again and again. ‘Do you want me to go out of the window?’ I asked him, trying to calm my nerves while my hands were shaking non-stop. ‘Excuse me? What's wrong with you?’ he responded while trying to deny that anything was happening. ‘Don't you see how you are sticking to me?’ ‘Who would want to look at you? That disgusting face!’ At this point, I started yelling at him, until the van driver noticed and told me to shut up. As for the soldier, it was as if he was in a coma. After several attempts by the young man to hit me after I started screaming, I told the driver: ‘Get me out! He will sit on my lap and yet you want to be quiet!?’ The man replied, ‘Let her out, I will pay her ride fee, how disgusting!’[4]

I got out, but I was no longer the same person who got in. I returned home and entered into silence for several days from the shock, and it made me not ride Halba vans alone ever again.

In another scene, not in chronological order , I hastily got dressed, put on my white hijab, a long navy skirt, and a shirt to go out for a walk near the famous Eiffel Tower in Paris to entertain myself after a long day and a deadly loneliness that everyone might feel when arriving to Europe. I crossed the Quinzième neighbourhood and reached the Tower. I began to contemplate the shiny lights on the Seine River and noticed a young man following me. He was speaking in Arabic and insisted on following me for a quarter of an hour, saying: ‘Peace be upon you! Peace be upon you!’ He tried to put his hand on me and get closer. I shouted out a few French words I had previously learned by chance, he then ran away and made me return home agitated.

Do all harassers attend the same club?! Why has nothing changed despite the changing places and times?! When I try to remember the number of times I was harassed, on Aldablan Street, near the Umayyad Mosque, in the detention centre, in the vans of Tripoli-Beirut, in Al-Fateh passageways in Istanbul, and in the streets of Paris... I cannot count them. Do I remember all the times? Really all? Did I try to intentionally forget them? And the most important question: Why am I feeling ashamed when writing this article, when all those who harassed and thought about harassing should be ashamed?

For a long time, I have not felt comfortable as long as there were men walking beside me. I would watch their faces, their movements, their behaviour, and their first moments of approaching to harass. Like the girls of my generation in Syria, it was not acceptable for young women to wear sunglasses, lest they might glance at young men. However, this view gradually turned around for me into a means of defence by which I protected myself when I read their reflections and movements, anticipating the moments when they might harass and for me to walk away.

I was once reading some comments on Facebook about a case of harassment that took place in Egypt. I read a comment that made me think deeply about all the cases of harassment that happened to me, and of those that I heard from my female friends. One of them wrote, ‘I harass those girls who don’t wear decent clothes, so that they learn and adjust their clothes. I am making them understand that they are making a mistake!’ As if he is using harassment as a method of ‘disciplining’ women. As if he is responsible for all of them. Hence, the idea of guardianship over women. Guardianship: this word that sums up, from my point of view, the way men in our societies deal with women; transgressing personal boundaries, encroaching on their personal space, talking about their clothes, and then following with harassment to make women feel as if they have been stripped naked. In other words, as if the eyes of the harasser burn clothes, boundaries, and security.

I decided, a short while ago, to change my personal picture on Facebook and use the image of a girl from a painter's painting. The girl is sitting on a chair wearing a brown winter coat, and her hands braid her hair. However, what is distinctive about this painting is that it bears the features of my face, which made me feel happy about it, as if the painter actually painted me in person. Comments started to pour in from men, asking why I took off my hijab? What did I imply in such a picture? ... One entered into my personal space and asked me via Messenger: ‘Why, Sulaima? Why did you take off your hijab?’ Although I had no intention of removing my hijab at all, the idea of guardianship that men had, especially with public figures, is like the permissibility of boundaries: ‘Why do you wear nail varnish? Why do you apply a filter? Look how her clothes are…Why don’t you remove your body hair? …’ among other comments that may affect women in the public space.

There is no set age during which a woman can feel safe from harassment. Women's bodies are targeted at all stages of life. We must be vigilant and conscious when we walk alone or in a place that we are not familiar with. This harassment diverts our attention from the beauty of the scenery or from enjoying a picnic, for example. It is as if we are in a Super Mario game and we have to get away from the monster, from one sidewalk or corner to another.

‘Not all men are like this,’ may be said by a man who feels targeted by this article, or by women talking about harassment from men. We know, dear reader, that ‘not all men are like this’, but this is an opportunity for you to join us and fight against this which we have been fighting alone for generations. Furthermore, unfortunately, those who do it have no intention of surrendering. Imagine with me the absence of law, or the absence of a religious or moral deterrent, as you might like to classify it... What would it be like for a female?! I imagine the scene where it makes us feel as if we are living in the Neanderthal (primitive people) era? Just like me and most women, we feel every time we are harassed that we live in the age of caves and animal instincts. So, this is a real call for men to show their position against harassment of women, a call for real justice for women, an open call for time and space.

The innocence that I started with has become a thing of the past. Today, when I walk, especially with my female friends, I am the one who is watching, alerting, and warning of upcoming harassment. I would very much like to enjoy the scene without focusing on the harassment attempts, but something broke inside of me, so I am writing this article under a pseudonym. But do you know, dear reader, why? For fear of electronic harassment and defamation of my reputation on the basis of the sensitive details that I wrote here. Since I started writing this article, I imagined that someone, a fool, will read this article, search for me and send messages with inappropriate content. This will add to my psychological suffering resulting from the harassment situations that I was subjected and ‘will be subjected’ to. Therefore, if you knew who I was after all the details I mentioned, appreciate my sacrifice by not mentioning my name, and if you do not know me, then this is my story, and perhaps the story of girls who lost their innocence and did not dare to reveal it yet.

[1] Al-Qusour neighbourhood: a city in Homs Governorate, located in central Syria. [2] This question could mean: ‘Are you a virgin?’ [3] A Lebanese city located in northern Lebanon [4] The actual phrase was a sound gesture in the Syrian dialect: ‘Tfeh’ implying ‘How disgusting!’. (Translator)

By Sulaima Al-Homsi.



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