Yemeni Women Lead a Campaign Against Street Harassment

A veiled Muslim woman walks on a Sana a street, Yemen.At background typical Yemen houses.
A veiled Muslim woman walks on a Sana a street, Yemen.At background typical Yemen houses.

By: Rasha Jarhum

Our Islamic high school teacher in Yemen often gave the 30 girls in our class a variation of the same lecture: "The chaste woman is a woman which protects her virginity. She walks close to the wall in the street looking down and not making eye contact with other men. She doesn't raise her voice because men should not hear her voice. She doesn't wear something attractive to seduce men. She doesn't wear perfume because it is forbidden. If a man smells her perfume it is as if she committed adultery with him. A woman's place is at home to take care of the family and make her husband happy."

The underlying message of the repetitious lecture was that if we showed our faces or called any attention to ourselves, we were inviting trouble, which we didn't want to do. So the message worked. By the end of the tenth grade most girls, including me, wore a veil (called a niqab) to cover our faces.

From these messages, we concluded that the daily street harassment we faced could always be traced back to our own actions, rather than that of our harassers. Even if we followed every rule and were still harassed, we were then blamed for leaving home in the first place.

When I gave the niqab a try, I was shocked to realize the harassment only increased. I did everything right. I walked close to the wall, looked down while walking, avoided eye contact with men and didn't use perfume. I even covered my face, and yet those were the times I was harassed the most, not only verbally, but also with physical pinches. The only time I wouldn't get harassed was if I had a man walking beside me. That was the only time seemingly I earned the respect from other men in the street.

With the recent escalation of violence due to war in my country, the situation has worsened. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that gender-based violence increased by 70% last year, with majority of victims being women and girls. Aden Center for Analysis, Monitoring, and Strategy Studies, a local NGO in Yemen, published a study earlier this year indicating that the types of harassment women frequently experience include cat-calling, stalking, staring, threats and blackmailing, unwelcomed physical touches, and sexual comments. With harassment so common, for women the seemingly simple task of venturing outside the home for any reason becomes a series of obstacles surrounded by concerns, tension, and anxiety.

My sisters and I resorted to a battery of defenses to protect ourselves from harassment. I developed what I call the "block and ignore" mechanism: I walked like a zombie, so dead eyed I probably wouldn't notice if a car was about to hit me. I also once crossed my eyes and walked all the way home from school that way. I would hear comments coming from behind, but when I turned around with my eyes crossed they stopped. Unfortunately, it was not a sustainable solution, since it caused serious headaches. My sister had her own method, activating the "defensive mode." She walked through the shopping mall shouting at every man who commented. Many of my friends and I employed a fake engagement ring strategy to deter colleagues from hitting on us.

Not all Yemeni women are able to have the same sense of humor about this decidedly unfunny situation. They have internalized lectures similar to my high school teacher's so much that they often blame themselves for the daily harassment they face, believing they weren't dressed correctly or that they somehow invited the unwanted attention. It can make the journey outside the home a frustrating and anxious one.

However, the reality is, street harassment happens because of a mix of societal negative norms, coupled with, a lack of a laws that protect women from violence in all forms, including street harassment. Civil society organizations were working on a draft law against violence against women to be presented to the government in 2014, however, this war and political stalemate is preventing any law amendments.

That is why women in my country have lead an awareness campaign as part of the International Anti-Street Harassment Week. A group of NGOs will be holding an informational event to raise awareness about the realities of the problem through sharing the recent street harassment survey results and personal stories and showing a film.

The situation may have worsened with the war, but with everything in flux, it is also the best time to challenge negative stereotypes and behaviors and work to create a Yemen that is safe for women.

Rasha Jarhum is social researcher and women's rights advocate, and she is member of the Yemeni Women Pact for Peace and Security. She's also an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow for 2016.