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

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.

MORE FROM “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.”

On The Reverse “10-5 Rule” and Walking While Female

Yesterday, DC resident Liz Gorman was sexually assaulted in broad daylight in what is considered a “safe” neighborhood in DC.  Here are her own words on her experience.

sexual harassment in dc

CASS was the first outlet to break the news and alert DC residents of Gorman’s assault (after Gorman contacted us), shown here reported on by DC’sWJLA/ABC 7.

Those of us who have worked in the service industry are very familiar of the 10-5 rule. This favorite of overzealous managers, inserted into every training session and employee handbook states that at 10 feet you make eye contact with a guest or customer, and at 5 feet you acknowledge them. Then a brief conversation ensues, the employee exchanges whatever good or service is being sold for money, and the encounter is over. Have a nice day.

While walking down a city street alone, a sort of reverse 10-5 rule exists. No matter the time of day or what you’re wearing. It goes like this: I am walking alone and see a man walking towards me at 10 feet. Maybe instead of looking straight ahead into the distance, I move my eyes to the ground. I slump my shoulders slightly, so maybe my breasts aren’t as prominent. I begin to analyze the width of the sidewalk; am I too close to him? I can’t move too far away, as I might risk offending him. And if I’m too close, well, that may very well be an invitation for something. At 5 feet, I take a small breath and one of two things happens: nothing at all, which I consider a small victory or…something. Something like a kissing sound or a variety of sexually explicit comments. At which point I left with two options: pretend that I don’t hear a damn thing, or risk an additional conversation, which in the past has been anything from a choice silent hand gesture and specific curse words to an extended conversation on mutual respect and common courtesy. It’s usually the curse words, which I wouldn’t recommend for those who can’t take what they dish. And the encounter is over. Have a nice day.

While walking down a city street alone, a sort of reverse 10-5 rule exists. No matter the time of day or what you’re wearing.

And most of us have to deal with this on a daily basis. We change our routes. Maybe I’ll take a left down this street so I don’t have to walk past That Store or That Bus Stop or That House. Maybe I’ll just take a cab when walking wouldn’t take much longer. Maybe I should have worn something else. Maybe I’ll just stay in tonight. There are a lot of “maybes”.

But let’s forget about all of the choices, those maybes, that we know have nothing to do with harassment but we still think about anyway. I was in Dupont Circle at 3:30 pm yesterday and was sexually assaulted while walking. In my hometown, in a nice neighborhood, in broad daylight, in public. I’m a city girl; I walk fast and have rules. A man pulled up behind me on his bicycle and reached up my skirt. He put his finger into my vagina through my underwear. He laughed and biked away. That was it. No 10-5, no catcall. No exchange. I didn’t see his face. At least when I was robbed at gunpoint I knew who to look for on the street.

The cops came within minutes and were exceedingly supportive. I went on with my day: I had lunch with my mom and then drinks with some of my closest friends well into the evening. I received many messages of support and encouragement, and I’m really grateful to have such wonderful people in my life. But one thing that has bothered me is referring to what I did as “brave.” I was simply walking while female. I guess I didn’t realize what a battle it still is out there and how much work we still have to do.

Liz Gorman is a photographer from Washington, DC. Her story was republished and reported on in numerous local and national media outlets, including The Washington PostJezebel, the Washington Post Local (front page Metro section), WJLAWTTG FOXDCistDCblogs and the Washington City Paper.

MORE FROM “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.”