Rabat, Morocco (TMT)- Street sexual harassment against women is an international issue existing in all countries with different rates. It has been defined as a form of undesired conduct of a sexual nature forced on women in a public place, let it be verbal, non-verbal, or physical. This type of harassment is directed at them because of their gender.
Statistics show that high proportions of women across the world endure frequent street harassment, feel that they cannot walk comfortably alone in public spaces. A considerable number have to find alternate routes to their destinations, feel the need of being constantly alert when traversing local streets, some have even reported that they have had to switch careers to avoid frequenting an area or place plagued by harassment.
Street harassment across the world
In the USA, activist group Stop Street Harassment surveyed 2,000 Americans in 2014. It found out that 65% of women reported having been victims of street harassment in their lives.
In France, a study released in April 2015 revealed that 100% of more than 600 women polled across the country had faced sexual harassment when commuting through public transport.
In 2016, ActionAid conducted a survey on street harassment in a number of countries. They found that 79% of women living across various cities in India, 86% in Thailand, and 89% in Brazil have been subjected to harassment in public, as had 75% of women in London, UK.
According to stopstreetharassment.org, in Argentina, 72% of the women polled said they had recently been catcalled. A 2008 survey found that 83% of Egyptian women said they had experienced sexual harassment while another study in 2013 conducted by UN Women found that 99.3% of female respondents said they had been sexually harassed.
In fact, many surveys to estimate the issue have been commissioned throughout the last decade in different countries around the world. The results have constantly shown that sexual harassment against women is prevalent: Japan 64%, Kenya 50%, Holland 59%, Philippines 88%, Saudi Arabia 80%, Tunisia 53.5%, Turkey 93%, UK 64%, and Morocco 73%.
Reports indicate that males sexually harass females in all public places: on transit systems, in clubs and parks, and on the street. They all conclude that harassment is “relentless and gets ‘normalized’ as girls grow up, contributing to far-reaching harmful cultural and psychological effects. Most of it goes unreported, though.
Street harassment in Morocco
In Morocco, street harassment against women is widespread. Wherever we are and at any time of the day, we cannot but witness young girls and women being harassed in the street by young and old men. The practice is so common that it has become an accepted and tolerated norm although it is considered a crime according to the new Moroccan law enacted in 2018.
Street harassment is not something that women would endure once in a while, but rather on a daily basis and relentlessly during the day. A Moroccan girl heading from her home to school or to work or to any destination would have to deal with leering, whistling, sexist slurs, persistent requests for her name, phone number or destination, sexual names, comments, stalking, groping, sexual assault, and sometimes even rape. What is inadmissible is that even teenagers give themselves the right to practice this “hobby” on older girls/women and they deem it normal thing!
Most girls are compelled to learn to deal with harassment in different ways. Some resort to neglect, acting as though they heard nothing (though it is hard at times), unless the harasser uses insults, gropes, or violence. There are girls that use earbuds and listen to music while alone in the street, although that does not work all the time as a certain kind of daring harassers might take their earphones off. Other girls fight back and might be ready for a scandal that could end up either in her favor as people might intervene to support her, or against her as the harasser might use violence. As a result, many women reported changing their clothes, routes, jobs, locations, and even the way they socialized in an effort to avoid the assault.
A woman might be going through hard times as family issues, loss of a relative, depression, health problems, and so on. The last thing she would want to endure is street harassment. A man in a similar situation, on the other hand, would be perfectly comfortable in the street. He would find refuge in a peaceful walk by the sea, or a two-hour stroll in the street by himself, or even a stay in a café. A woman could dream of relishing such a privilege.
For years, women have been enduring this harassment in Moroccan streets without any law that could protect them or initiatives that could help reduce this sexist conduct.
The reasons are many:
1- A Patriarchal Culture:
It is gender norms within society that shape the different roles and behaviors of females and males. They constitute the social expectations that dictate what is appropriate behavior for women and men. These gender norms create inequalities, whereby one gender becomes empowered at the expense of the other. Thus, in many societies, women are viewed as subordinate to men and have a lower social status, allowing men to have control over women.
Sexual harassment is a reflection of a culture of toxic masculinity, a reflection of what it means to be a man. It is an aspect of a society that brainwashes human beings into the notion that women are less worthy than men. It is a culture whereby the beliefs, behaviors, practices, ideas are organized to serve men only. It is this inequality that causes sexual harassment, rape, prostitution, etc.
According to those social norms and expectations in a patriarchal society, men are raised to believe that they are superior. As they grow up, they watch women being abused and discriminated against. They grow up believing that women are weak creatures that cannot defend themselves, who need protection from men.
It is those norms that tell girls to be submissive, attractive, passive beings. The media and movie industry, for instance, constantly portray girls as princesses waiting for a rich and good-looking prince to come and take them.
This culture considers being a woman as an insult to men. Men are brought up not to show tenderness or love or to cry, or show any aspect of weakness, otherwise, they will be called women. It a culture that pressures the man to be tough. Boys are called a sissy or a wuss if they show sensitivity. When males want to make fun of each other, they use the word “girl” or “woman” for intimidation.
In such a society, men are raised with the idea that the street is a man’s land. The woman is only a guest in it. The boys are allowed to go out any time they want, they can stay out till late hours. The girls are not welcome in the street (especially at night), nor are they in many public spaces. The girls who do so are frowned upon, at the very best. And if something happens to them, then it is said to be deserved.
In many countries, women had been denied the right to education or pursuing it in many countries. It is only a few years ago that Morocco, as an example, had passed a bill forbidding the exploitation of young countryside girls as maids in the cities.
This society imposes on women the burden of doing the house chores, the cooking, and cleaning, ridiculing the women who choose not to do them or do not know how to do them. It allows the men to sit comfortably waiting for the women to cook and serve lunch or dinner, eat, and watch the women clear the table and questions his manhood if he helps in performing those tasks.
It is a culture that grudgingly accepts that women work outside or hold high positions. A female assertive boss or official is called a bitch. Amazingly, it is this same culture that would, yet, embrace their providing for the family but would never tolerate them not working inside as well.
Patriarchy asks the woman only to cover her body. It regards women who choose to dress in a certain revealing way as whores. It asks the girl to lower her voice and be obedient towards her father, her uncle, her teacher, her elder brother, her husband. It is this very obedience that paves the way for her to endure the harassment, or the violence, or the discrimination, or even rape in silence.
It is this culture that views a young man having a girlfriend as normal while accuses that same girl of being a slut. It tolerates men cheating on women and blames the women they go out with for “stealing” another woman’s man. It is a culture that blames the woman alone if she gets pregnant outside marriage. It can go further and tolerate rape. In Morocco, for instance, there had been a law that exempts a young man who raped a girl jail if he marries her! Luckily this law was removed.
A woman victim of domestic violence is expected not to sue her husband in court as suing him would take him to jail, make him lose his job, and lead to a lot of financial troubles for the family. In this society, a divorced is blamed for not knowing how to save her marriage or for not being patient enough.
Many are the aspects of such a culture that strengthen gender discrimination and that provide the ground for street harassment.
2- Masculinity & Manliness:
According to in-depth interviews with men, proving masculinity to oneself and to other men by objectifying women’s looks and being a sexual player is an important component of masculinity. It is a way to prove to the other men that one is a tough “MAN” and therefore has nothing to fear from his male mates who would bully the weak, the gay, or the very sensitive. That is why, many feel pressured to street harass to remain within the ‘MAN-box’, acting tough, adhering to rigid masculine gender roles mentioned earlier, being heterosexual, having as many sexual partners as they can, and exerting aggression and control.
It is a kind of burden to prove one’s manhood and masculinity to other men. It is this pressure that pushes the very young boys (11-16) to discover their masculinity quite early to try out harassment, just like trying smoking to prove themselves to others. It is called peer pressure in psychology.
Even those who are against such conduct cannot speak out against it. They would stand quietly by and watch their mates take part in sexist behaviors. They would keep their discomfort to themselves so as not to threaten their being in the so-called ‘MAN-box’.
3- To Show Appreciation:
Men also argue they feel attracted to a woman and would like to know her; thus, the need to get her number. They would even justify that claiming that a quite good number of females feel no harm in exchanging their numbers or social media accounts to men. Other men say they want to let women know they appreciate their beauty.
When asked how they thought women would feel as a result of such actions, men had trouble fathoming why women would not want strange men to comment on their looks or ask for their phone number. They even claim women enjoy the attention. However, they showed hostility when asked how they would feel if another man complimented their sister or daughter. They know it is not complimentary behavior.
4- For Fun & Amusement:
A study found that many men street harass simply because it is fun for them; it is a way to release their stress. When the men in the survey were asked why they sexually harassed women in public, the vast majority, up to 90 percent in some places, said they did it for fun and excitement. Some reported harassment is relieving boredom and doesn’t hurt anybody!
5- To impress other men:
Others said they do it to show off for or entertain their male friends. Many men asked said they harass women only when they are in groups. Otherwise, they would leave women alone. These men feel the need to impress other men to be accepted in the group or get a kid of appreciation.
6- A sign of Power:
Research has demonstrated that street harassment reflects, in fact, the need for the men to prove their power over women. Men inherently engage in aggressive and violent activities to demonstrate their manhood. This said they harass women to exert power on them and put them in their place. Some male harassers from lower classes target specific women from upper classes or the smart and accomplished ones and try to reduce them to their body parts through whistles, comments, and groping as a way to express hostility to what they represent and symbolize. In fact, the ability to harass is the only power they feel they have over those women. They don’t want to miss the opportunity to show it, even unconsciously according to research.
According to a study of street harassment in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Palestine, men street harass because they have issues in their life such as poverty, unemployment, and political instability in their country. About half the men surveyed said they felt stressed, depressed, or ashamed to face their families. They can’t find work. They can’t afford to marry. They’re stuck living with their parents. There is nothing to do. “They’re in a suspended state of adolescence”. So, they [harass women] to put them in their place.”
Erin M, 24, a pub-crawl leader in Berlin, Germany told Highsnobiety magazine: “for a while, I was getting my ass grabbed almost every day. It is never about making me feel good or confident in my body. It is a power move; they are trying to show what they can do to you.”
Street harassment can also be an attempt for some men to find a sex partner. A good number of men would feel the need to have many sexual-conquests. In achieving this goal, they would harass as many girls as possible with the hope of getting a phone number or a social media account. While doing so, these males do not realize or do not care about the amount of disturbance and anger all those harassed girls would feel.
8- Some women are also responsible:
Unfortunately, however, women react differently to the uncivil attitudes they receive from men. Some women have their share of responsibility by doing acts that support and maintain the patriarchal system of inequality and keeping the status quo, contributing to this mindset.
There are women who encourage such behaviors in the street by accepting them through having a positive reaction as smiling or, in case the comment was funny, laughing loudly with the females they are with, through accepting to engage in a conversation, or providing their numbers, or even going further into arranging a date. In this way, these women are giving the men reasons to keep on practicing the harassment as it “pays off”.
Many women regard street “remarks” as favorable compliments. Research commissioned by Elizabeth Arveda revealed that many female tourists traveling in different countries consider some forms of street harassment that are seemingly less severe such as wolf-whistling and following as ego-boosters rather than an inconvenience.
YouGov conducted polled 1,000 Americans in August 2014. In their findings, 72% said it was never appropriate to make a “catcall”, 18% said it was sometimes appropriate to catcall, and 2% said it was always acceptable. The majority (55%) labeled catcalling “harassment”, while 20% called it “complimentary”. Americans in the 18–29 age range were the most likely to categorize catcalling as complimentary.
In the Syrian culture, some women are told that they are guilty of their experienced street harassment because they ask for it in the first place by “looking good for men”.
There are even women who expect the man to harass and find it seducing, according to a study conducted in India. These women are reported as being used to the men being aggressive, violent, and “macho”. They would rather go for the “bad boys”. Therefore, realizing that, men decide to be more aggressive to prove their manhood to those women.
The Effects on Women:
Relentless street harassment evokes from its victims multiple emotional and psychological responses (and even physical). Women subject to street harassment reported they feel discomfort, rage, disgust at times, even intense fear (of rape) in some cases. They say their feeling of safety and comfort in public places is reduced and feel their privacy being intruded.
As a result, women say street harassment severely restricts their freedom of movement as they become alert towards their surroundings. They feel they have to restrict their choices of clothing and adjust them to where they are going. Some wear headphones or choose to exercise indoors and avoid certain neighborhoods or routes as effective measures to reduce the chances of being harassed.
In recent studies, street harassment was linked to a decrease in the quality of life for many women in the countries where this misconduct prevailed.
Initiatives & Measures taken by governments:
From a judicial approach, the law has played a crucial role in reducing harassment in many countries. Female victims today resort to law enforcement officers for help. Men in various countries across the developed world know that harassment might take them to jail or to pay heavy fines. That is why harassment sometimes takes place discretely and it is hard to prove it in certain situations.
Many countries have put in place laws that protect women from sexual harassment. In these countries, it is no longer permissible nor is it tolerated to insult, follow, or humiliate women by harassing them in the street, or in public space.
France, as part of tougher legislation to fight sexual violence, has passed a new law in 2018 to stop cat-calls, sexist or sexual words or behavior that are hostile, degrading, humiliating, or intimidating. Those breaking the law face potential on-the-spot fines of up to 750 euros or 1,500 euros if there are aggravating circumstances such as if the victim is under 15 or if there is aggressive and physical behavior.
In the USA, in California, for instance, a sexual assault conviction carries with it a possible sentence of 24, 36, or 48 months in prison, as well as a possible $10,000 fine. New York law, on the other hand, sets the absolute minimum sentence for sexual assault at one to two years and the absolute maximum penalty at seven years. Judges can choose any range that falls within those limits.
In Germany, the parliament voted for a stricter sexual harassment law in 2016. The law sharpens punishments men convicted of sex-related offenses. Sexual assault is now punishable by a fine of up to two years in prison. Groping, for instance, is considered an independent category of a sex crime with a maximum sentence of two years imprisonment.
In the Danish criminal code, for an offense involving sexual harassment, the penalty consists of a fine or imprisonment for 2-3 years.
Morocco passed a law that criminalizes violence against women in 2018. Approved by parliament on February 14, the law imposes tougher penalties on perpetrators of various types of violence committed both in the private and public spheres, including rape, sexual harassment, and domestic abuse. The legislation also declares the definition of sexual harassment, including unsolicited acts statements or signals of sexual nature, delivered in person, online, or via telephone.
Those found guilty of violating the law face prison terms ranging from one month to five years and fines from 200 to 1,000.
However, this law would definitely not have a significant immediate impact on the ground for years to come. Harassment would remain, for it is ingrained in the culture.
Education & Raising awareness:
Investing in education must be the second axis beside law to help reduce the harassment. Schools need to play a role in educating future generations to respect the other, respect personal space, and develop good manners. Approaching a female has to be taught. Dealing with male harassment has to be taught as well. Kids and teenagers must know their rights and duties.
There must be sensitizing campaigns in the media that target changing mentalities, reducing gender inequality, changing gender stereotypes, norms, and behaviors, redefining the concept of masculinity. It is not easy but possible if vested in. It is a nation’s obligation towards its female citizens, not just a government’s duty, or NGOs’ commitment to defend women. We all ought to defend our mothers, our sisters, our wives, our daughters, friends, classmates, neighbors, co-workers, and all females.
Young boys should be taught that being a man can be displayed by being courteous, respectful, honest, helpful, by being responsible, hardworking, sensitive, and caring. Men should bear in mind that by encouraging harassment, they are contributing to their own sisters and daughters and wives’ suffering in public places. They should learn that if they like a girl, approached her, and she said no or that she’s not interested, then they should leave her alone. They should be aware that beautiful women already know they are beautiful, they don’t need to be reminded that by every man they come across in the street every day, as a girl said. Men have to know that the street belongs to all the people, not to the men only. To try to prove power by referring to a woman’s body parts is rather a sign of weakness. No woman would consider a man as powerful because of his harassment. They must learn that harassing women to have fun and relieve stress or to entertain other men is so cowardly.
Females as well should be educated on how to deal appropriately with street harassment. Experiencing harassment in silence or fearing or tolerating it is, in fact, encouraging it and helping it remain longer in society.
Hollaback, an international movement against street harassment, advises women to look the harasser in the eye and denounce their behavior with a strong, clear voice, saying, for instance, “that is not OK,” or “don’t speak to me like that”.
According to the Bristol Zero Tolerance group, which has created a guide on responding to street harassment, a woman can react calmly, firmly and without insults saying something like, “don’t whistle at me, that’s harassment” or “don’t touch me, that’s sexual harassment”, making it clear that it’s wrong, the group says. Other suggestions also include asking them if they would want their loved ones to be treated in the same way.
A specialist says: “Any harassment that makes you fearful for your safety either at the moment or afterward, should be reported.” She stresses: “If you have been harassed or assaulted it is your right to report this to the police. “There is often a fear that these incidents will not be taken seriously, but this should not be a barrier to reporting,” the expert noted.