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The hazards of walking while female
Female pedestrians often helplessly face harassment in the streets.
By Nada Fadhl Howaider & Hakim Almasmari
Sana, Yeman, Jan 27, 2007 - Sana’a’s streets are rife with a variety of hazards for the pedestrian: unsafe driving, clouds of poisonous exhaust, and piles of litter in the street, just to name a few. But women face one more unpleasant hazard: men. Women walking along the streets in Sana’a are often verbally—and sometimes even physically—harassed by men. These men call out obscenities or other inappropriate things, and sometimes follow or accost women.
Harassment is a daily problem for Dhekra al-Khamry, a 23-year-old college student. “We get up in the very early hours of the morning to go to the university,” she says. “But unfortunately, along with our pure intentions, there must be pain. We hear harmful words, which charge us with behaving dishonourably. Tribesmen stalk us from the moment we take the bus, until we arrive at our destinations with some unpleasant antics on the buses. We have no one to turn to because in our society, we are to be blamed all the time.”
Laila Sultan, 25, an Iraqi woman residing in Yemen, claims that she is verbally harassed on a daily basis, even though she wears the veil and nothing of her body is revealed. “In this part of the world though, one is more likely to get verbally abused, while in the West it’s more likely to be physical abuse,” said Sultan, a student in Sana’a. Samar Ali Abdu, a second-year university student, believes that this problem is only spreading because it is new to society, and with time it will go away. “Personally, I used to be bothered very much in the past, but I started wearing normal clothes and stopped looking around as much. These days I get bothered much less than in the past.”
Sheikh Mohamed Ismael al-Amrani, an important religious figure in Yemen, warns that such harassment of women will lead to greater problems in the future. “Violence against women spreads more with time, and I advise my sisters to avoid being harassed by wearing less attractive clothing to avoid making them prey for others,” he said. “Such harassments were very rare in the past, and the crisis is growing faster than anyone expected, resulting in women being taunted more and limiting their service to society.” No woman, no matter how she dresses, is asking to be harassed. Men are responsible for their own behavior, and can choose to behave respectfully.
This kind of behavior is not considered to be in line with Islam and infringes on the laws of Allah, say religious leaders. The Prophet Mohammed’s last sermon even repeated three times, “I entrust women to you, so fear God into the flasks.” Sana’a University professor, Dr. Mohammed Naif believes that the harassment of women is not as widespread as people think it is, compared to other countries in the region. “We are following in the same footsteps as neighboring countries in this field. We have done nothing to stop its spread, and I believe that satellite channels and social problems have played the biggest roll in the rapid spread of this phenomenon.”
According to the police station in the Hadda neighborhood of Sana’a, which is considered one of the most prestigious place to live in the country, 38 cases of various kinds of harassment against women have been reported to that police station alone in the past month. This doesn’t even include the scores of additional cases throughout the capital, said Ali Misuad, a police officer at the Hadda police station. “The biggest problem we face concerning women, is small harassment cases, and rarely do we get strong physical harassment complaints.”
The Yemen Language Centre, which provides cultural introduction to foreigners who are here to study Arabic and Yemeni culture, has even had to incorporate a component into its program to warn female foreigners against harassment by opportunists. Harassment happens everywhere, but particularly in busy areas, such as Bab al-Yemen or Souq al-Milh. An American female student, who came to Yemen particularly to learn Arabic, was stupefied when a pedestrian started making obscene facial expressions and reprehensible hand gestures at her. She shouted at him “Shame on you!” in Arabic, but he just laughed. “I found it really hard to adjust to situations like these at the very beginning of my trip to Yemen,” she says, “But now, I just ignore whoever does such things. It is the best way.
I am enjoying my stay in Sana’a, and I am impressed by the hospitality of the Yemeni people, but such behavior is still unacceptable.” Many Yemeni women claim that harassment occurs even in taxis, and so do not take the risk of riding in them anymore, especially at night. Harassment varies in severity, from calling out derogatory words to stalking and attempted kidnapping. It can also sometimes have far reaching consequences. There was a particularly traumatic incident a month before Ramadan that was the consequence of a man stalking a lone girl. When the girl, whose name is being withheld to protect her, was stalked, a male colleague came to her aid.
But the stalker stabbed him in the chest with his jambiya and fled. The perpetrator, whose name cannot be mentioned for legal reasons, was captured and even confessed his crime. The deceased youth’s family are looking forward to seeing justice being done and say, “An eye for an eye, and we will not bow to anyone’s wishes or give up in our search for due recompense for our son’s life.” Increases in harassment and kidnapping cases have been reported recently.
A tribesman threatened a woman in her thirties with his jambiya recently on Zeraa’a Street, one of the busiest streets in Sana’a, because she asked him to stop chasing her from one alley to another. A young man was ready to slap a girl on Jamal Street when she objected because he went further than verbal harassment. Worryingly, reports of a gang targeting lone girls are being investigated in the Family Annex of Al-Thawra newspaper, due to a violent assault two years ago against a university student.
There are simply too many of these kinds of attacks to recount in one article. Most women can share at least one incident of harassment they have suffered on the streets of Sana’a. These attacks are a smear on the honor of Yemen, and on the honor of the country’s men. Only when men begin to hold each other and themselves accountable for such deplorable behavior will it perhaps begin to be changed. These verbal attacks are not meant to flatter a woman, but rather to attack her, and assert power over her. Men who are insecure about themselves are most likely to resort to harassment, psychologists have suggested.
A recent study, Violence Against Women Exposed, prepared by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Yemen, found that harassment against women is more predominant in cultures where the idea of manhood is closely related to feelings of entitlement to power. Men in these societies feel they have the right to comment on the women who walk past.
Although there are some government channels women can turn to in order to report such harassment, few women are willing to turn to these authorities. Women are afraid to draw attention to themselves, and fear being blamed for being the victims of such crimes. There is also a lack of confidence in due legal process, and worry about the social shame that might pursue the family of a victim in their community.
Source: Yemen Observer