Sexual Harassment in Tunisia: The Daily Nightmare by Rahma Sghaier from Tunisia

Graffiti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo (women)
October 2012- Graffiti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo depicting women and their struggle for human rights. The Arabic translation of the phrase is ‘no to sexual harassment.’ Mohamed Mahmoud Street was the site of protests in November 2011 which were suppressed by the Central Security Forces, leaving around 50 dead.

Walking quickly on my way back from university, I can hear distant music beats coming from somewhere. I close my eyes. I try to focus only on the music; and for a second I disappear. I am no longer here. I feel that the melody is coming from my inside and its beats are synchronized with my heart beats.

Loud screaming and cursing wake me as I pass by a street fight. I start to walk faster, my head down, as I’m desperately hoping I would only get the minimal unavoidable harassment treatment by the group of guys around the fight.
I try not to hear what they are saying to me. At that precise moment, as usual, I reflect on the benefits of being deaf in Tunisia, or imagine myself as a superhero, as I used to do when I was a child, a superhero who could make bad guys disappear…

Then I smile and I tell myself ironically: “it’s a hopeless case!”

I find it surprising during these moments of self-evaluation, that I’ve reached a point where I smile at this, even if just at the irony.

I don’t know if it’s a new level of despair or if it’s just my “I-wish-I-didn’t-care-anymore“ way of overcoming this kind of events.

I guess I’m tired, like a lot of Tunisian girls and women. Tired of feeling hate, rage and disgust every day when we walk the streets or use public transportation…

[“Psssst” “You there, I want to **** you” “I want you to be my ****” “nice *****” “I want you to **** my ****” …]

I am not a remarkably good-looking girl but it’s almost impossible to pass by a guy or a group of guys without hearing loud disrespectful comments. Few guys would even stop me and demand in the rudest way (like it’s their God-given right) to get my phone number or my Facebook id.

No matter how diplomatically I express that I’m not interested and that I should get going, they get really mad and find it legitimate at that point (after being rejected) to call me a “slut” and other highly sophisticated names (that I didn’t know existed in the Tunisian dialect) which have the same meaning…

“Why “no”? You have a boyfriend right? I can do a lot better than him, just give it a try!”

It’s not only about being good-looking, it’s not only about the way the girl is dressed. Being a young female is all it takes.

Few days ago, the world celebrated the 66th anniversary of human rights day. I came back home to read the shocking news about the 19-year-old Egyptian woman who jumped off a bridge into the Nile River as a reaction to being sexually harassed in public[1].

This is it; the ultimate response. It’s a shocking event but I could totally relate to her. Who wouldn’t sometimes wish we had the Nile River in Tunis as well? I know I’m not the only one. That’s why I decided to write about this. The day after, I asked girls on my social network to send me their testimonies.

A., 27 years old, was the first to share with me this arduous incident:
“I’m going to tell you something that happened to me in 2008. I took the subway in Tunis at 10 a.m. The metro was full and a man put his hands on my bottom and as the metro was full, I couldn’t even move to avoid him. I got off shocked and I told this to my girlfriends. They all confirmed to me that they were harassed in public transportation before.”

Emna, 22 years old, also shared her experience: 
“I have always been a victim of verbal harassment. It’s about offensive remarks; either about my body, my looks or just because of my gender; only because I’m a woman” “It really disgusts me. I always feel uncomfortable. My rage against this society is growing day after day. Sometimes, I have weird thoughts, and even violent ones. Sometimes I wish I was a superwoman so I can beat them up!” she adds.
Kods, 23 years old, expressed her ultimate frustration: “I wish I could walk around with a gun and shoot down every guy who harasses me”.

These violent impulses might sound funny and caricatured but one can easily understand how hurt and disgusted these girls feel.

Another nightmare that happened to me was when a man followed me with his car. He shamelessly kept beeping his car horn. He drives by me and tries to get my attention: “hey you! Just a second!” “Where are you going?” “Do you want a ride?” “Come on: Jump in! I have something to show you”.  When I refused to look, he gets mad and follows the calling names tradition… This happened during the daytime, while people were moving across the street, nobody intervened…

There is no point of trying to defend yourself. The harassers will just have the chance to harass you more and more. They want attention. So what I do is just swallow the humiliation and carry on walking, ignoring them.

Sometimes the harasser can be very persistent and refuse to take “no” for an answer. He follows me till I get to my destination as he pollutes my ears with degrading expressions.

These incidents happen so frequently and by a variety aggressors; I get harassed by guys my age, old men who are my father’s or my grandfather’s age and underage school-boys whom I can legally adopt! It is just unbelievable!

When you face this kind of phenomenon you wonder: “why?” “What’s wrong with this society?!”

“I believe it’s the effect of the huge sexual repression that our people suffer from.” Emna explains.

Psychologist Christopher Ryan[2] believes that if the expression of sexuality is thwarted, the human psyche tends to grow twisted into grotesque, enraged perversions of desire. “Unfortunately, the distorted rage resulting from sexual repression rarely takes the form of rebellion against the people and institutions behind the repression. Instead, the rage is generally directed at helpless victims.” This is the most agreed on psychological explanation.

This is how sexual harassment is explained, but is it justified?

“Of course not!” Miriam, 21 years old, refuses the use of the sexual repression problem in Tunisia as an excuse for the aggressors. “Both women and men face the same repression, we both have sexual needs, you don’t see me harassing every guy passing by! These men should learn how to control themselves. There is no excuse!”

Faten, 22 years old, confided her hope to me: “I wish one day I’ll walk the streets in Tunisia and feel like a respected human being”.

I share the same frustration, the same anger, the same disgust and finally the same hopes as these girls. I also want to walk the street with my head up, not scared of making eye-contact with anyone. I want to be respected for who I am and not only when I am in the company of a guy. I want to have a normal daily life and walk to my university peacefully.

Rahma,
YaLa Young Leaders
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