On Sexual Harassment: No Rainbows here

By Joelle Hatem

This morning something extraordinary happened: I experienced genuine happiness! Wait, wait, this is not a I-lay-in-my-bed-and-the-sun-came-shining-through-the-windows-story. This is a I-got-harassed-by-a-12-year-old-and-flipped-him-off-story.

Yes, and I flipped off a budding harasser and it felt great. This charming little boy of twelve or thirteen drove by on his motorcycle this morning, while I was meeting a friend on Bliss Street and as he drove by, his socialization got the upper hand and he could not prevent himself from sending kissing noises in my direction. And I flipped off!

 

As it happened, three people: a young the young man on the sidewalk and the the two Zaatar w Zeit valets, started starring at me. But it wasn’t so much a creepy “Hey there little Lady” stare, it was surprise and unbelief. Not because I had flipped off a guy, but a kid. I loved it. I wanted to laugh out hysterically and do a victory dance, but I too have been socialized a certain way and so I just walked on.

Nine months ago. This would have been completely different. Nine months ago I had just spent two weeks in Beirut and was on the edge of a nervous crisis. People that had been staying here longer told me that at the end of this would be a rainbow. That only made me cry louder. After all, you can’t really sell an empowerment story; and nothing makes you feel more miserable on an already bad day than a “you’ll see it will get better in the end” or a “that’s normal honeypie”. You don’t want to hear that your suffering is not unique but that it’s the most normal thing so you should get over it.

I think the psychological effects of harassment depend very much on the person harassed. In the best of all cases, it can be only annoying, disrespectful and would probably make you think about what happened for some time before you decide (pretty quickly) that the person, sorry but mostly men, are incredibly impolite and that their parents (NOT their mothers!) should have raised them better. As my mom used to say when I complained in Damascus about the people staring at me:  ”Lioba, don’t worry, in 10 years you will work for the UN (for my mom something highly positive as for most people, myself included) while they will still be here selling fish heads!”

The problem is (and I really hope I am not getting to theoretical about this, but I have to make myself believe in my own intelligence by formulating long sentences) that only very few people believe in themselves independently from the rest of the world: Dalai Lama… and maybe Nelson Mandela.

When I walk through the streets, and especially at the beginning of my staying in Beirut, my inside was very much – and in many ways still is – what my outside told me it would be. Only that one’s outside world is rarely mastered by oneself. Hence, when people tear up my skirt, sniff me, do kissing noises, look at me as if I was naked and treat me as if I was a hyper sexualized human being, “she is from Africa, thus she is not civilized thus she is always and everywhere ready for sex, and she probably needs it,” then that hurts. And it does not hurt so much because they say it, but it hurts because it exposes me to the outside world, makes me visible in an environment in which I would prefer to remain unseen and discrete so as not to provoke too much attention. It humiliates me in front of my outside world, and sadly enough, in front of myself. Because outside Lioba just told inside Lioba that she makes other people treat her badly. “Why Lioba, oh why?” Instead of shouting “zbala” or “fuck you, you disgusting pervert”. No, it makes me want to take their hand and talk to them: “You know, I am not a prostitute, pleeeeeeeaaaaase believe me.”

Harassment as being sexual innuendo or insults convinced me (temporarily) that my worst fears about myself were true. That I was not nice, intelligent and pretty enough to make people treat me well and that I needed to improve myself or change. It made me want to hide from the world, so that the mirror they were showing me would disappear with them.
We would not want to have this article end like this would we? Things did not really change. Lebanese society did not disappear in a fireball only to be reborn shiny and all utopian. Then again, when it comes to me, I did not wake up one morning and realized how happy I was. (I told you this would not be a I-lay-in-my-bed-and-the-sun-came-shining-through-the-windows-story) I realized that I have the ability to have some control over my reality and myself. I can’t sell you this story. Nothing guarantees to you that you will have the same experiences. I won’t say: See, I got through it and so will you. But I can take you on a tour throughout the city and help you insult whoever tries to disrespect you . I am really good at that!

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