Yemeni women face verbal harassment

Published on 18 November 2014 in Culture
Eman Al-Sharifi (author)

Eman Al-Sharifi

When women are harassed‭, ‬blame is often placed on the victims of harassment instead of those doing the harassing‭. ‬

When women are harassed‭, ‬blame is often placed on the victims of harassment instead of those doing the harassing‭. ‬

“May God protect you and your family,” it begins. Perhaps not considered harassment to some, but to the women who experience it daily, the intent is obvious. “I want to know you.” “Good Morning.” “What nice eyes. “Nice body.” “Let’s have lunch together.” Yemeni women are used to hearing phrases like these the second they step away from their homes.

Some women have become accustomed to such harassment and see it as an inevitable but minor daily annoyance. For others, it can be emotionally exhausting, leading them to change the kind of clothing they wear, the route they take to school or work, and the transport they take to get there.

Street harassment is not limited to Yemen, but is a world-wide phenomenon. The blame for harassment is often put on women instead of the male perpetrators. Because the harassers are not seen as the problem, or as a phenomenon that needs to be fixed, the role of the government in tackling harassment has thus far been minimal.

Male perpetrators get away with it

Whether the harassers believe their behavior is acceptable or not, they know they can easily get away with it. Men are often excused for bad behavior, with some people reasoning that it’s simply ‘the way men are,’ while women are held responsible.

“I can’t inform my family if I hear humiliating words in the street,” Yasmin, a 20-year-old high school graduate, told the Yemen Times. “I feel afraid of my family’s reaction and society’s reaction as well. They will not look at me as the victim, they will look at me as the reason for this problem.”

She explained that her family or other members of society “will think it is either because of my way of walking or my way of dressing—in all cases I’m the reason. Consequently, I keep this to myself.”

The shaming of women who have been harassed leads many to be silent on the issue and as a result, the problem continues to be ignored.

Some Yemeni women try to avoid harassment through modest and conservative clothing, yet, their attempts are not always fruitful. .

Take the case of Samia, a 23-year-old housewife who in public wears the niqab. In an effort to avoid harassment she covered up, but as a result a man called her “batman,” which she found very humiliating.

Asma, a 23-year-old English teacher, wears a headscarf at work but veils her face while in the streets for the sole purpose of trying to avoid verbal harassment.

“Unfortunately, wearing the veil doesn’t stop harassment,” she said. However, she has noticed that a niqab “minimized the problem.” Asma assumes that “maybe that is because I don’t stand out, I look like the majority of Yemeni women who wear the niqab.” Like other women interviewed for this piece by the Yemen Times, Asma did not want to give her last name for fear of her family and others finding out she is being harassed.

Varying perceptions and reactions to verbal harassment

Many Yemeni women have learned to live with being verbally harassed by strangers. When asked whether it bothers her, Saher, a 20-year-old English student at Sana’a University, plainly said “no, these words don’t bother me at all because they became a part of my daily routine.”

Mariam, 23, a Sana’a University student in the Faculty of Arts, shares a similar view. She is used to the harassment, she said.  In fact, Mariam said that if she does not get comments on her way to university she doubts whether she dressed “properly.” In other words, for Miriam and her friends, phrases like “you look great,” “nice eyes,” and “you are very elegant” have turned into a reflection of their daily appearance, a “beauty check.”

For many other women, however, harassment can be very damaging, especially when the harassers focus on the women’s size, their way of walking, or their way of dressing. Abeer Abdu, a 26-year-old pharmacist and journalist, recalled when a stranger shouted, “Are you athletic or malnourished?”

Most Yemeni women the Yemen Times spoke to said they do nothing when they are verbally harassed. They keep walking and pretend they do not hear anything in an attempt to avoid confrontation with the harasser, as well as their family, who they fear would pressure them to cover even more and possibly prevent them from leaving home.

Abdu constitutes an exception to this rule. While she was walking in the street, a guy yelled obscene words at her which she said she could not repeat. She said she totally flipped out, found an empty glass bottle and threw it at the man’s head. When he fell, Abdu said she beat him ‘mercilessly’ with her hands and purse.

“The harasser did nothing because he knew that he did something wrong. Moreover, there were a lot of people around who would have protected me if he was willing to fight back,” she said.

Verbal harassment can not only be humiliating and insulting, it can also make women feel guilty and ashamed, especially if their families know about it. Some parents or husbands would prohibit their daughters or wives from leaving the house alone, or at least place greater restrictions on them.

“I’m in my first year at university and I have never come to university by myself. I come with either my father or brother,” said Rawida, a 19-year-old Sana’a University student. “Hopefully I can find a girlfriend in my class to come and go with instead of my family members,” she said, adding “I am afraid I will face harassment.”

While teenagers are a major source of harassment directed towards women, middle-aged men are by no means exempt. Even children sometimes harass women in the streets.

Rawan, an 18-year-old high school student, said while she was walking in the street, a child, who she guessed was around the age of 12, approached her and said “Let’s have lunch together today.”

On the other side of the age spectrum, Lamia, a 22-year-old Sana’a University student in the Faculty of Arts, notes there are also a lot of  middle-aged harassers. Lamia said she felt most afraid of this demographic compared to young men because they often say more obscene words and can be more persistent.

As the famous Yemeni proverb says, “what you don’t accept for your sister, don’t accept for others.”

While there are notable organizations in Yemen promoting women’s rights, there is a lack of effort towards discouraging and solving the issue of verbal harassment in the streets. At least that is Abdu, a pharmacist thinks. “I call on civil organizations, the media, policy makers, and the security personnel to join in solidarity with this issue,” she said.