On the street, I’m no longer a person with a PhD and a brain

Probably like most women, I have also experienced sexual harassment. I don’t know if it was the first time, but it was definitely the end of my childhood innocence and ignorance, there, on the number 11 bus in Ljubljana. I was around twelve, sitting on the bus on my way to school, the seat next to me was empty until an older man took it at the next stop. There were eleven stops to my school. That was enough time for the man to take his penis out and start touching it. Even today, I don’t know why no one on the bus noticed what was happening, my frightened body sandwiched between the bus window and the masturbating man. Coincidence? I don’t know. Now that I professionally deal with women’s rights, when sexual harassment and violence against women are part of my everyday life, I have begun to realise that misogyny, patriarchy and violence against women are not a coincidence, but part of our mind-set and socialisation that gives full sway to men’s rights and elevates them above universal human rights, no matter if the exercise of these male rights leads to violence against others, such as sexual harassment, rape and murder. Australian sociologist R. W. Connell was right when she said that “most men are not violent and do not harass women. But those who are like that usually do not see themselves as deviant. Quite the contrary. They feel that it is their right to exercise power over women. They are authorized by an ideology of supremacy.”

For the past year, my Canadian husband and I have been living in Morocco, where I teach at the local American university. I am a political scientist and “Orientalist” by profession (at Oxford we apparently do not read enough Edward Said), but I prefer a multidisciplinary approach to researching the problems of authoritarian and patriarchal countries in the Middle East and North Africa. An anthropological and ethnographic approach, known as participation observation, is particularly close to my heart, partly because since my undergraduate years I have had a strange, uneasy attitude to theory and abstract things invented in laboratories and quasi-validated through (abstract) models. Morocco is an interesting country that first attracted me during my graduate studies and later as the main subject of my doctoral thesis. Foreign media, scholarly and amateur analyses usually present it as an island of stability, progress and liberalism in this regional sea of “upgraded authoritarianism”. But the more I read about the country, the more I got to know it through my research trips and field work, the less I understood this gap between appearance and reality. The poor situation regarding women’s rights and the open misogyny, with sexual harassment as but one of its expressions, are a large part of this Moroccan chimera. According to the Moroccan Statistical Office (Haut Commissariat au Plan), almost 6 million out of 9.5 million Moroccan women between the ages of 18 and 65 have been subjected to various forms of violence (Enquête Nationale sur la Prévalence de la Violence à l’Egard des Femmes, HCP 2011).

As I mentioned before, sexual harassment is part of my job and everyday life. Catcalling unknown women on the street with “Bonjour, comment ça va”, “Ghazzele”, with constant wolf whistling, honking and rapidly rolled down car windows so that the pathetic man can be seen is not complimenting a woman, but sexual harassment and sexual objectification. It may be its mildest form, especially when compared to the above example, or to rape and other physical forms of sexual violence, but this does not mean that we can turn a blind eye to and brush aside forms of violence that, regardless of the level of pain, still cause discomfort and lead to objectification.

In Morocco, there is no anonymity on the street as there is in Slovenia or in the UK, where I lived for almost seven years before moving to Morocco. But maybe men in the West have become somewhat more sophisticated – they disguise their objectification of women as more or less misogynistic attacks in their comments on internet articles. This form of violence has become increasingly indirect, impersonal, but no less acceptable. Here, I limit my excursions from the campus, where I live, to the city centre, Fes, Azrou or Meknès.

If I have to go out on my own, without my husband, it is only to run an errand or to meet my friends. But then, even the least flattering appearance will not make me invisible because even women who wear headscarves and are generally dressed very conservatively are a constant target of sexual harassment. I am a woman and as such, a target for unwanted comments and harassment. On the street, I am no longer a human being, I am not a person with a PhD and a brain, but a sexual object through which men affirm their ego, their masculinity, their male dominance over women and the domination of misogyny. I tried going out with an iPod to drown out the noise of harassment; I tried yelling back and got myself into countless fights; I asked them what they would do if an unknown man talked like this and undressed with his eyes their women – sisters, mothers and wives – and hoped that others, female and male witnesses, would support me. But, just as no one saw anything on the number 11 bus twenty years ago, nobody sees anything here and now, either. Only then do you become truly anonymous… For them, this is just a funny game, for me, it is my life. My life in Morocco, which I don’t like. And which, to be honest, I sometimes even hate because it demeans me as a human being and impoverishes my everyday life and life in general.

What to do? I honestly don’t know. It’s true, women must be loud, we must organise campaigns, such as SlutWalk and Reclaim the Night, and recruit men to help us raise awareness of different forms of violence, verbal, uttered casually or as a “joke”, as well as other forms of physical violence. The classroom is of course an additional forum where I can draw attention to and organise discussions on violence against women, the meaning of patriarchy and how it is felt. But what can I do if my lectures on sex, women’s rights and masculinities are usually attended mostly by women and some feminist men, so that we largely reiterate what we feel and what we are fighting against.

Before readers ask me in the comments why I don’t move back to the civilised Western world, let me say that moving is not an option, at least not for the time being. Not only do I have a job here, but moving back to the West will not save me from misogyny. Do not fool or even flatter yourselves that in the West we are so much better than those “barbaric” Arabs and Muslims. Patriarchy, misogyny and violence against women are more or less universal concepts and a universal practice. In the West, there is nothing new or significantly better in this respect. Harassment is present on our streets, too, and it has become much more present and visible on internet portals. Violent outpourings of venom by men who believe so strongly in their misogyny and their macho rights that they do not need to be anonymous and who tweet under their full name and picture has become common internet practice. After Marion Bartoli’s victory at Wimbledon this year, someone tweeted that Bartoli was too ugly to be raped and a BBC reporter at Wimbledon, John Inverdale, thinking aloud about Bartoli’s technique, said, in what he later claimed was a joke, that he was wondering if her father, “because he has obviously been the most influential person in her life, said to her when she was 12, 13, 14 maybe, ‘Listen, you are never going to be, you know, a looker.’” These are only two recent examples of Western “civilisation” and enlightenment. But women do not participate any less in the production and maintenance of patriarchy. We blame other women for rape, and the recent comment by Serena Williams on the rape of a high school girl in Ohio when two “friends” raped a girl and documented their six hours of atrocities (so that they could post it on Facebook, Twitter and other portals because you can’t assert your manhood if others don’t see your “heroic” acts of misogyny) is just another expression of our Western “culture”, which still blames the victims of (verbal and physical) sexual abuse for the violence against them and teaches girls from birth that they should avoid dark streets, nightclubs and that they must dress conservatively, mustn’t drink alcohol, flirt excessively or be provocative and at the same time it forgets about the much needed socialisation of boys into people who will finally be able to respect women for what they are – equal human beings and not only objects of their sexual desire. This is the ideology of the dominance of masculinity and men’s rights which R. W. Connell talks about. Women are expected to live in a panopticon, to be prisoners of constant self-policing of our behaviour, whether men observe us or not (in the panopticon, it is all about the illusion of control) and sometimes, but no less intensely and with the authorisation of the same enlightened society, attack us when we cross (violate) the boundaries of expected female behaviour, internalised through socialisation.

And then there is talk about culture. In Morocco, they try to silence me, saying that I do not understand their culture; in the West they talk about rape culture, that “boys will be boys”. Excuse me, but isn’t culture something beautiful, aesthetic, although sometimes incomprehensible, something that we are taught to admire? To me, the so-called culture that justifies any kind of violence against anyone who ignores the violence in a “joke”, violence that is rolled into a compliment (because women live only for men to notice us), violence that continues to make excuses for the perpetrators of terrible acts because they could not and cannot resist a woman whose sexual history is provocative, who is so drunk that she cannot say “no” when a man starts undressing her against her will, is not a culture that is worth calling culture and that is worth defending. This is not culture; sexual harassment and violence aren’t part of any culture; it is the disgusting attitude to women which can and must change. And it is an attitude to women which is universal. It is not specifically Moroccan, Canadian, Slovene, British, European, Muslim or Arab. No! It is a chauvinistic attitude to women that does not know any boundaries, that does not have a nationality. And we have to fight this attitude, this mentality and not just ignore it, thinking “What is she so angry about? I only paid her a compliment.”


Author: Katja Žvan Elliot. Feminist and professor of political sciences with focus a on the Middle East and North Africa at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco. She is currently writing a book on women’s rights in Morocco, preparing for motherhood and thinking about her next research project, which will deal with stories of the “fallen women” and their life in the Moroccan neopatriarchy.


Translated by: Tina Goropečnik.


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