By Camilla Caraccio
International Women's Initiative News Writer
Street harassment: much has been said and done to put a spotlight on this controversial issue facing Jordanian society, as well as communities across the Middle East, in these times of political unrest. Yet in spite of various studies investigating the phenomenon and highlighting its tragic aspects and sociological implications, laws continue to miss the big picture in safeguarding women's integrity in public spaces.
Any unwelcome verbal and non-verbal behavior men reserve towards women they do not know in public spaces can be broadly defined as “harassment.” This behavior can acquire various forms and different degrees, ranging from inappropriate staring and suggestive comments to undesired touching and sexual assault.
But the line between innocent flirtation and offensive behavior of a sexual nature continues to blur, and the legal system has done little to distinguish between the two. Without a clear law condemning street harassment as a punishable crime, the problem remains unsolved – and abuse unfolds silently in the streets.
In need of a safe place
While it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the street became a common place for systematic abuses of women's freedoms, street harassment has evolved into a fully contemporary problem and is particularly depriving women living in rural areas and ultra-conservative societies – areas that the Middle East has in abundance – of safe public spaces.
Jordan represents a peculiar case in the region, as a traditionally accepted practice interweaves with a recent shift in demographics caused by the war in neighboring Syria. Jordan has the highest per capita ratio of refugees worldwide and has been at the forefront of providing material assistance and human resources for the humanitarian response. However, the persisting crisis has had a profound impact on the country’s socioeconomic fabric, exacerbating pre-existing vulnerabilities and feeding negative coping mechanisms.
Among women residing in Jordan, Syrian women face the most frequent harassment. This is typically attributed to a combination of gender bias and misleading stereotypes diffused within host communities, where the refugee is typically associated with economic instability and the tendency to make certain compromises – including arranged marriage – for gaining financial returns. Along with this, the common perception of the woman as a family member relegated to the domestic sphere makes the home a ne plus ultra for the majority of refugee women.
However, refugee women are not the only ones subjected to these forms of harassment. As one study documents, local women and migrant workers are also the victims of the sexual abuses both in the streets and in the workplace.
Street harassment restricts women’s freedom of movement, comfortable access to public facilities, and healthy engagement with social activities. Moreover, inappropriate conducts towards women in the streets is encouraging some to pursue a code of modesty that doesn't always align with their faith and will: loose-fitting clothing, hijab, full-length skirts and so forth.
In May 2016, more than 100 women took to the streets of Jordan’s capital in a rally organized by ActionAid, in cooperation with Namaa Organisation and Fastwalk Group. On the occasion, the founder of Fastwalk Group, Mouwaffaq Maraka, said that unacceptable behavior in public spaces poses serious threats to women’s freedoms and well-being, compromising their inclusion in outdoor activities and social life. In April, the Jordanian government approved a series of changes to the Penal Code, which includes harsher punishments for perpetrators of various crimes, including harassment. But the amendments have yet to be endorsed by parliament, and this may take a long time if one considers the complexity of the issue and the country’s slow bureaucratic machine.
But against this backdrop of uncertainty, a paradigm shift may be afoot.
In the face of this persisting problem, greater engagement on the issue by members of the affected communities is a solid step towards recognizing the problem and facing down harassment, which can be seen as a symptom of male-dominated societies.
Among the most recent initiatives is SheCab, a female-only taxi service designed to offer an alternative to a transportation system lacking in protections for female passengers. The founder, a passionate 22-year-old pharmacy student named Rahmeh, launched the project to address two of the most pressing issues facing women in Jordan: street harassment and unemployment. “I remember being the 'pain in the neck' kind of teenager,” says Rahmeh, “I wanted to go out every day and of course my parents didn't want to drive me around all the time! Taking a cab or any other transportation mean wasn't even an option, because according to my parents and most other parents, it wasn't a safe environment.” According to an article published in 2014, the majority of incidents of harassment in Jordan take place on public transportation, making it a common source of worry for Jordanian women and their families. “We need also to pay attention to the fact that the number of Jordanian women holding a university degree has tripled over the last couple of years, but on the other hand, you see that a huge percentage of Jordanian women are not employed, and transportation is one of the main reasons.”
Recognizing the negative impact of harassment on various aspects of women's lives, Rahmeh envisions her company as a powerful tool to facilitate mobility and provide a worry-free environment for women. “We are responding to the phenomenon of harassment with a new trend, a trend where women stand up for women, empower them, and provide safety for them,” she says.
The service not only allows women to avoid unpleasant encounters in public transport, but also acts as a reliable source of employment (all the drivers are women) and a much-needed opportunity for forging meaningful connections between women who have experienced harassment and are determined to work together to find sustainable solutions.
Elsewhere in Amman, Lina Khalife, the young founder of the self-defense center SheFighter, believes that women can counter their aggressors by using their own hands. In order to empower young females and brave the streets fearlessly, she founded a women-only studio in northwest Amman to teach the basics of kickboxing and self-defense. But it's not all about martial arts and learning how to make a strong fist. This gym, the first of its kind, aims to create a safe space for women, restore their self-esteem, and raise awareness as tools of empowerment. In her mission to empower women through a traditionally masculine sport, Khalife is providing them with the opportunity to cultivate their inner strength so they can heal and fight back.
“Self-defense helps women gain better self-esteem because it teaches them how to defend and protect themselves from different types of violence. It works also on building their strength up and getting a strong body that will boost self confidence in their lives,” she says.
Today, the project involves women of diverse backgrounds, holding workshops and training sessions in remote areas of Jordan and refugee camps, and aims to expand further.
Sexual harassment arises from the male desire to own the public space and is not incited by sexually provocative dress or behavior. In other words, it has nothing to do with clothing, beauty or age, and women are not to be blamed for being targeted.
In an effort to raise awareness about this issue, the academic sphere is doing its part to establish a women's civil society network in Jordan. More and more universities are carving out space within their curricula and dedicating, for the first time, entire courses to gender studies, female participation in decision-making, leadership and women’s economic empowerment.
Street harassment reiterates a narrative whereby patriarchal notions of masculinity prevail over natural expressions of femininity. In the face of this phenomenon, women-led initiatives like SheCab and SheFighter are providing resources to ensure women's safety and preserve their dignity. These initiatives also challenge the roots of prevailing beliefs and practices with pathos and strength. But most of all, they assure that, amid high hopes for a legislature that truly protects their rights, women will not be patronized, abused and discriminated against any longer.
These efforts prove that, when women help each other, they can find powerful ways to speak up for themselves and works towards a better future.