It feels like this is how it’s always going to be

By Nancy Messieh

When I moved to Washington, DC, from Cairo last month, I made a mental list of all of the changes that I was going to be met with, many of them positive. I would no longer have to deal with Cairo traffic, with the city’s grime and pollution, with an overly-nosy neighbour, with the oppressive heat, and best of all, I would no longer have to deal with the daily bombardment of sexual harassment.

As it turns out, that isn’t entirely true. The first thing I discovered was the fact that Washington DC’s summer is more humid than Cairo’s. I told myself, at least I won’t have to think twice about what I wear, about the length of my skirt, or my sleeves; I won’t have to trade comfort in the heat, for the comfort of one less stare or one less comment from a man in the street because of my choice of clothing. As it turns out, that isn’t entirely true either.

Women’s rights groups demand anti-harassment legislation on the steps of Cairo’s Journalists’ Syndicate shortly after the 2006 Eid incident. © Alexandra Sandels

I have very suddenly become aware of just how naive I was to think that anything had changed in any major way just because I was in a different country, one that prides itself on values of freedom and equality. I was still a woman, walking the streets of a city by myself, always open to the possibility that there was a man out there who felt entitled to things he had no right to. I was still a woman wearing a skirt that some men might think provocative. I was still a woman.

Of course anyone who has been to both DC and Cairo knows there isn’t much of a comparison when it comes to picking out your outfit. How can you compare a conservative Middle Eastern city, with  its small pockets of cosmopolitan carefree life, to the capital city of Freedom Central? I thought there simply was no comparison whatsoever, until last week when I read an article by DC photographer, Liz Gorman, “On The Reverse ’10-5 Rule’ and Walking While Female,” detailing her own sexual assault in Dupont Circle at 3:30pm on a Thursday afternoon. On Friday, still unaware of Gorman’s story, I sat on a bench in Dupont Circle waiting to meet a friend. I was wearing a skirt, certainly not one that is short by any DC standards, although one I would have thought twice about wearing in Cairo.At the time, I didn’t give it much thought. Now, I do.

It was a sobering moment, as I read Gorman’s story, and delved deeper into the reality of sexual harassment in DC, reading stories of women on the Orange Line being followed by men as they do the simplest and most pedestrian of things, like walking home from the metro station after a long day at work. I read names of stations that I pass through every day, once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and suddenly it was all far more real than I wanted it to be.

In Cairo, I had become accustomed to lewd comments and stares. I had all but managed to completely block out the whistles and cat-calls, the loud smacking of lips, like an unwanted kiss. I learned to ignore the cars that slowed down as they approached you in the street on the off chance that you might get in. I no longer saw the winks, the overly-friendly smiles. I pretended that these men didn’t exist: the particularly emboldened ones, who took one step too close, reached out a hand, or simply brushed past you, using the crowds and bustle as a convenient and dirty excuse; the taxi drivers who took advantage of the fact that you’re trapped in the back of their cars, on a bridge, with nowhere to go, and you have no choice but to sit there while they rub themselves, and you do everything you can just to keep looking out the window, praying that they don’t take it any further; the men that flashed you as you walk past them. Cairo has it all – every garden variety of sexual harassment can be found in the city that is spilling outside of itself with people. And I simply learned to ignore it all.

One month ago, I thought that I wouldn’t have to deal with that anymore, at least not until my next visit home.Yesterday I went for a run with my sister. Well, she ran, as I trailed behind her with my camera. We were in the heart of suburbia, in the midst of townhouses, parks and schools – it couldn’t have been more innocent on the surface. We passed a running trail, and I wanted to wander down it, figuring that I’d be able to find something a little bit more interesting to photograph besides the ducks on the lake, that I had just photographed out of the desperation of wanting to photograph anything at all.

My sister told me it was a bad idea. It turns out that the path is known for being the haunt of a particularly elusive flasher, one the police haven’t been able to catch. He waits for women, walking or running by themselves, and jumps out in all his naked glory.

Protestors against street harassment in Adams Morgan, Washington DC. Image from sarah-graham.co.uk

The park flasher, Gorman’s assaulter, the stories of harassment dotting the Orange Line – they’ve all changed my perception on what it means to be a woman anywhere in the world.Living for the past fifteen years in a country where sexual harassment is such a rampant problem that a rally for women’s rights was attacked by men, I had somehow come to assume that this daily harassment was something peculiar to the city I called home. I thought that these little day-to-day assaults – that aren’t really little at all but we learn to brush them off, just so we can actually step out into the street again – were products of culture, or poverty, or anything that simply didn’t exist in cities like Washington DC. It’s these small attacks, that chip away at the feeling that you deserve to be treated any better than this, that I didn’t expect to find here. I couldn’t have been more naive.

Gorman reminded me that walking while female in Egypt is the same as walking while female anywhere in the world – it means that, at any moment, you could find yourself on the receiving end of unwanted attention.

So far since moving here, since reading Gorman’s article, I’ve been verbally harassed twice. It’s nothing in comparison to the daily harassment I faced in Cairo, and I’ve found myself doing exactly the same thing – ignoring it, the same way I had learned to all these years in Cairo. I turned the music I was listening to up, pushed the buds of my earphones deeper into my ears, and kept going. Because it was just one comment, so what difference did it make?

But once is all it takes to make you feel threatened, to make you feel that you’re not going to walk down that street again, that you’ll walk an extra five minutes out of your way to feel safer. It’s all it takes for that inadvertent bump on the metro to become a threat. It’s all it takes to make you realize that you’re always walking with your head down.

It’s all it takes to make you feel like this is how it’s always going to be.

This piece was originally published on Nancy’s blog, 1/2 poet 1/2 geek. It has been republished with her permission.


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ABOUT “MY STREETS, TOO”
“My Streets, Too” is CASS’s ongoing series on personal writings on street harassment by members of the DC community. Email Renee to submit writings using your full name, initials, or anonymously (just let us know). Please be sure to use the subject line “My Streets, Too.”

2 thoughts on “It feels like this is how it’s always going to be

  1. Pingback: Street Harassment, Blogging & the Internet: Sharing stories, spurring action | Collective Action for Safe Spaces

  2. Pingback: Blogging on street harassment: Sharing stories, spurring action

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