Street sexual harassment: breaking the silence in Yemen

Young women’s rights activists are using new media to give a voice to the 90% of Yemeni women who face street sexual harassment. Yet support for the campaign has been far from unanimous; it has come face to face with a new form of patriarchy in the media, says Ghaidaa al-Absi. (Also in Arabic.)

Read this article in Arabic

I was nine years old the first time I was subjected to sexual harassment on the streets of Yemen. On the way back to my home in Sana’a, the capital, we caught a public bus. On the bus, while I was dreaming that when I become older and have a job I will buy lots of chocolate and dolls, suddenly I felt something touching me down my back. I was sure that it would be a cockroach or an insect, so I didn’t move or scream. I didn’t want to show my father my fear; I loved to show him my bravery, even when I was scared. I was uncomfortable with the tickle down my back, which continued for approximately ten minutes. When we got off the bus I discovered what the tickling actually was and it made me experience a type of fear that I had never experienced before. The tickling came from the fingers of a man in his thirties who was sitting behind me. Once we got off the bus, I saw his face through the window, sending me kisses and dirty looks. I was too scared and drowned in silence and shock. I couldn’t tell my father; I didn’t tell anyone. I lived in fear for five days, hating every man in the universe except my father.

Right now I’m in twenties and I still remember this incident. Unfortunately it isn’t the only time I’ve been harassed. Sometimes I find myself thinking, how many other children and women has this man molested? How long will we remain silent and let these predators invade the dreams of our children and destroy the self-confidence of women?

Every day women walk down the streets and they face sexual harassment. Unfortunately it becomes part of our daily life, and we women are forced to adapt to it either by being silent or by yelling at the harassers. With friends, I decided to break the silence and to draw attention to the phenomena of street sexual harassment in Yemen. We proposed a campaign called ‘Safe Streets’ anti-street harassment to Tacticaltech (Tactical Technology Collective), and they got behind us.

The main goals of the campaign are to achieve a culture shift through giving space not only for women, but also for men to speak out about what is happening to them on the streets instead of keeping it behind closed doors. We want to mobilize people, decision makers, and police officers to form a new law to penalize harassers.

As part of the campaign we designed an electronic map where victims have a space to report harassment cases and indicate the location. For instance, on 7th May, 2012 we received a report from a man in Taiz city saying that he had seen a shop owner trying to hug a girl, but that the girl was scared and pushed him away. We got another report from a girl saying that a group of men in a car were stalking her in Sana’a. Through this map we aim to detect the hot spot streets and collect data. This information will help us to expand the campaign in the future and support us in lobbying police officers to station more patrols in these areas. The data will also map the scale of this phenomenon, allowing us to put pressure on decision makers to form a new law.

Baby holding a sign reading 'please don't harras my mother'
A picture sent by a supporter

The campaign has also included activism through art. Between 25th - 27th October 2011 we hosted an exhibition of local artists’ work on streets sexual harassment, and produced a video to engage public opinion. The campaign team also designed a digital platform for women and men to blog for the cause. Right now we are preparing to publish a book called "Happening down the streets”, featuring the stories of women who have experienced sexual harassment on the streets of Yemen. We’re also going to step up our offline activism so that we can reach those people who do not use facebook or the Internet.

Since we began the campaign a real discussion has begun around sexual harassment. People have also begun to act, writing to us about their experiences and their opinions about what needs to change. People sent in photos of themselves holding signs with a message to show their disapproval of what is happening. One featured a baby holding a sign reading, “plz, don’t harass my mother!”

Woman in full niqab with sign reading: I want to be an invisible woman
Another photo sent by a supporter

Yet support for the campaign has certainly not been unanimous. Some people have claimed that the campaign actually promotes sexual harassment, or that we have actively set out to defame the honor of Yemeni girls. We recently read a statement on the website Yemen Street from someone saying that we should apologize for giving Yemeni women and men a bad reputation.

Through the campaign facebook page we have already opened a lot of discussions and there are many questions that remain unexplored: we have noticed for example that many people think that whenever a girl does not wear what they deem to be ‘appropriate clothes’ people have the right to harass her. Others continue to deny the existence of street sexual harassment in Yemen, or keep telling us there are other issues in our society that are more important than street sexual harassment and that we should care about those instead. Women's rights issues are simply not a priority for some men and women.

The worst is when the media is involved in encouraging this mentality, or is even complicit in concealing facts about women’s issues. Our experience with Alhayat Daily newspaper, which is very well known newspaper in Middle East, based in Saudi Arabia, Ryadh, is a case in point.

The newspaper contacted me in February 2012 through a journalist asking me questions about the Safe Streets campaign in order to write a report about sexual harassment in Yemen. On the campaign Facebook page we had given some statistics, based on a report resulting from a regional conference organized by the National Center for Women's Rights and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) on sexual harassment across 16 Arab countries, including Yemen. The conference report said that 90% of Yemeni women face street sexual harassment.

This information, already posted on many international and local websites, was quoted by the journalist in his report for the Alhayat Daily newspaper. The title of the article was "90% of Yemeni women are victims of sexual harassment, and the Internet is their haven.”

Three months on from the publication of this article, in May this year, Alhayat newspaper deleted the statistics from the online version of the article and apologized in their newspaper and on Twitter, claiming that the figure 90% was over exaggerated.

A scanned image of Arabic text

The apology, published on Twitter and in the newspaper

They published this apology after a few men on Twitter asked the newspaper to delete the statistics, claiming that they were wrong and that they implied that all Yemeni men were harassers. The article’s new title reads “Victims of Harassment and the Internet is their Haven". So the newspaper not only deleted the statistics, but also the word "women".

We hoped that the newspaper had based this decision on subsequent research or investigations, something to prove that the statistic was not true or that fewer than 90% of Yemeni women face sexual harassment daily. Yet there was no such survey. This was a big shock for us. How could this very well-known Middle Eastern newspaper be swayed so easily by this small group of men on Twitter? How could they delete such important information about women’s suffering on the streets of Yemen?

Many people tried to communicate with the newspaper, to tell them that this kind of behavior is not professional. We even sent the journalist and the newspaper a report, "Baseline Study on Fighting Streets Harassment against Women in Yemen" which was conducted by the Athar Foundation for Development, and funded by the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). This report says that 98.9% of Yemeni women are facing streets sexual harassment in the capital. The newspaper is yet to respond.

The incident with Alhayat raised many questions: why did they respond so quickly the will of a small group of men, and why did they ignore us in spite of the proof we sent to them?  We are facing a new form of patriarchy in the media. Faced with this we must seize the chance to end the taboo of talking about sexual harassment and act together to break the silence.

 

About the author

Ghaidaa al-Absi is an anti-street harassment activist from Yemen and founder of the Safe Streets Campaign. One of her projects has been to empower Yemeni women in new media. She is author of a booklet  documenting the stories of women revolutionaries who participated in The Arab Spring.