Being in Tunisia for the summer, street harassment is an incessant issue for me. I’m often told by other Americans that I just need to deal with it, because it’s just part of their culture and I shouldn’t insult a different culture. I’m told by Tunisians to just ignore it, which is hardly a satisfying response, but provoking them is often just as worse. I’m also told by people, like my mother, that i should stop complaining because it’s a compliment, and I’ll miss it when I’m old and don’t get cat called anymore. (I even wrote about this in my blog, http://independentlyowned.wordpress.com/2009/06/29/transnational-gender-stereotypes/)
The harassment is usually low-level, and comes in the form of “Hello, miss,” “Bonjour,” “Very nice,” kissing noises, or other such small yet obnoxious comments. They usually say it when they’re just about to pass me, when they’re closest to me for that one brief second. They obviously don’t expect me to respond, otherwise they wouldn’t wait until the last moment. It’s merely a way of asserting their power over women, because they feel that they have a right to comment to any woman that they wish but they’re not giving us the right to respond back. It’s like getting into an argument with someone where they go on a rant and then hang up the phone, or sign offline. They don’t respect you enough to allow you to respond, nor do they care.
Other times harassment comes in the form of intense stares. They might not say anything, but instead glare you down until you’re out of their line of vision. Nothing will come of it if you do or don’t respond, but it is the most unsettling feeling. It is especially bad when dozens of men are all sitting at a street cafe and all stare as you walk by. It is not flattering, and I feel like an animal on display at the zoo.
Most people say just to ignore it, but this is hardly satisfying, and often impossible. Even if I pretend like they don’t exist, they still did what they wanted to do and I feel used. They still leave the situation satisfied and thinking that what they did was totally okay.
No matter what I wear I will get harassed, even when I was here in the winter and was completely covered I still got harassed. Some Americans suggest that I wear hijab to avoid it, but especially seeing as it is not required of women, and in fact more than half the women do not wear it, I feel like I shouldn’t have to resort to such (in my opinion) oppressive measures just to be able to walk freely down the street. Also, I might still get harassed simply because I’m white and thus foreigner. The burden should not be on me to cover myself and look “less desirable,” especially when most women wear the highest fashions, but it should be the responsibility of the men to behave in public.