Written by Sherry AlHayek
For a while I was uncertain how to explain harassment to someone who has no idea what it feels like. Eventually, I have come to believe that harassment is when I am made to feel uncomfortable by transgressions on my comfort zone. It doesn't have to be physical, it doesn't have to be verbal sometimes. A taxi driver fixing his rearview mirror to stare and give me that nasty smile is uncomfortable.
In the past, I used to get into arguments every time it happened, then it got tiring. There were times when I would hold back tears and avoid thinking about it, at other times, I became excessively aggressive with the harasser.
This article is an attempt to document harassment as I experience it every day. The incidents described below occurred on a weekend around Christmas, and were documented from recollection on 20 January 2019. The aim being to contribute to the understanding of how sexual harassment translates into our daily lives as women and how it affects us, some events are very small, a smile, a word, but this one smile, or that one word are able to hit deep.
Saturday morning, second weekend in December, the Christmas spirit is all up in the air. Decorations are lit, christmas songs are playing and a cold breath is streaming with every breath. A shy winter is knocking on the door. I get a text message on my phone from an unfamiliar number.
’Don't you want to invite me for coffee?’
’Who is this?
‘Khalid, the electricity guy’
‘Well, I don't think I know you enough to invite you for coffee"
‘But you are very polite and that is all it takes’1
I stopped replying.
I met this person once in my life, he came to check the electricity box when I first moved in months ago. At the time, he took the liberty to intrude on my personal life.
‘You live alone?'
‘Yes,’ and he smiled hearing my answer so I felt compelled to add ‘but my parents come and go.’ Then, still feeling the lie not potent enough, I continued, ‘my dad works for this company and they have branches around the Arab world, this is why he and my mother travel a lot.’
Once done with the task he came to do, he turned around and continued questioning me.
‘You’re from Syria?’
‘Yes, but my mother is Lebanese,’ I lied again as my discomfort continued to increase. Harassment is harassment, but sometimes being harassed as a Lebanese woman is easier than being harassed a foreign or refugee woman.
‘So, you drink.’ He said holding up one of my empty alcohol bottles.
‘Yes, is that a problem?’
‘No, just curious. You seem like a liberated woman.’
‘So, does this electricity box work now?’
‘It should work fine, and if you face any problems, feel free to call me,’ he added with a meaningful tone.
The taxi driver, that person with whom we are often stuck in a moving box, turned around and started a conversation.
‘Are you married?’
‘Do you live with your family?’
‘Yes,’ lies come easier with practice.
‘How many siblings are you in total?’
‘You know I can get you coupons from this organization2 I know. They will pay you $125 for each of you. You are from Syria right?’
‘Thank you, I’m not interested, I would rather leave it to the ones that are more in need.’
‘Oh, how sweet of you. But you are in need, and I am a good person, I will only need to come visit you once a week and bring the coupons.’
‘Thank you, not interested.’
‘Are you sure? This will open doors for you. Once you register with this organization, they will contact you constantly. I helped a girl once, she was very nice, I visited her every now and then, a few months later, they started paying her house rent.’3
My stomach tightened. I got off and walked the rest of the way.
The worst stories happen after dark. As a female, the minute the sun is down, life gets harder. Walking down the street, a car slowed down, the driver looked and started speaking to me.
‘Do you need a ride?’
‘No, thank you.’
Unperturbed, he continued to drive, providing his unwanted help, ‘I don’t need anything from you, it’s just that it’s cold and you are walking.’
Reaching the limit of patience, I halted, looked at him and yelled, ‘I am fine. Please, drive away.”
He drove away.
Minutes after, I walked into a bar, sat down and waited for a friend.
‘Can I buy you a drink?’ I hear the person next to me offer.
‘No, thanks.’ I ordered my own drink, took out a cigarette. He pulled out his lighter.
‘No, thank you. Not interested.’
Eventually, my friends came and, upon hearing the story with the electrician, one of my male friends brushed the incident off as harmless, volunteering his assessment that I may have misled the electrician.
The comment left me feeling cornered. It hurt to know that my male friend could more easily empathize with a guy he doesn't even know, than with me, his friend.
The term itself gains violent dimensions in some contexts. It gets tiring to constantly monitor yourself to avoid “misleading” men who feel entitled to ask suggestive questions. Having decided that I fit a stereotypical checklist in his mind about women. He has already mislead himself.
'Next time a stranger comes to your place, call me and I will come over so he knows you have a man in the house. You could say I am your brother.’4 He proposed as solution.
I know calling a friend will help, but I should not be made to feel the need for a male guardian whenever I need any service I am an independent human being and I don’t need a womansitter.
The way some men stare in the streets, the way others smile, there are many moments in a woman’s life where things happen to her because she is a woman
I remember walking with a friend when a man uncovered himself and chased us in the streets. I remember the first time I was harassed at the age of thirteen. At the time, people told me it was because the way I walked was “inviting”. I started practising a “less inviting” walk whenever I was home alone. Then I was advised to keep my head down, to look at the ground, so that men are not led to believe I seek their attention. I tried to do as I was told, because they were adults and I was young, but I couldn’t. It was not the way I was raised, I could not lower my head for fear of harassment.
With time, I realized that men don’t harass us because of the way we dress, talk, or carry ourselves, they do it because they can and they are not held accountable for it.
Sherry Alhayek, born in Homs-Syria, grew up in Chicago. Graduated from the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC) with a bachelor of science in architecture, and a minor in communications. Certified journalist and a trainer with the Deutsche Welle akademie in Germany. Winner of the " Goldenen Nica des Prix Ars Electronica 2012 " for the digital communications category and the BoBs award for online blogging 2012.
1 Written from recollection on 20 January 2019.
2 In this context, it can be assumed that the driver is referring to a non-governmental organization providing relief services.
3 Written from recollection on 20 January 2019.
4 Written from recollection on 20 January 2019.