Women, Culture & Sexual Harassment

       Celebrities. When one of them speak up against sexual harassment, they are crybabies. When they are accused of sexually harassing and assaulting someone, the victim is label as a gold digger. We want our celebrities to be as funny and adorable as some of their onscreen characters. We want their sweet voices to be the mirror of their behaviors.

       Often, when it comes to celebrities being accused of sexual assault, their fan base starts automatically defending them and thinks it is OK to slut-shame the victims. These comments are disturbing. Sadly, they reflect how everyone reacts when a woman has the courage to speak up when she is attacked, harassed, assaulted. It is always her fault.

      Movies, video clips, song lyrics. Sexual harassment and abuse were largely normalized through these channels. People dance to songs praising harassing attitudes towards women (Blurred lines) or men (Hello – Adele).

      Others spend hours glued to their couch watching TV shows, movies, Reality TV programs where you will often see women catcalled, harassed in the streets, at work, by a secret lover, a stranger, or an incredibly annoying colleague. People will not take no for an answer. Hollywood can make a love story from unhealthy behaviors. You can often see women fall in love with their attackers because for some reason, they come to realize that it was just a gawky way for him to express them.

        Again, I am asking myself and asking you, what message does it send to viewers of all ages? What message does it send to women and men?

            I can tell you how I feel about it! American movies being blockbusters I always loved a good love story freshly produced in Hollywood. With the right background and the right soundtrack, everything can become romantic. Until one day, I stumbled on an article like this one. It made me rethink my entire vision of romantic stories on TV. I started with the very first love stories that I watched: Disney movies! How can we think that it is OK to show to a very young audience that a prince charming can just kiss a princess while she is sleeping, without her consent?

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Disney, Snow White

        Marrying them does not make it OK, it does not legitimize the action. There is a fine and blurry line between sexual harassment and sexual assault that Disney and Hollywood cross.

 

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Columbia University’s iconic Alma Mater statue with a red tape that was in 2014 the students’ sign to express their discontent with how the university handles sexual violence cases.

         But sexual harassment is not limited to the workplace and the street.

       A high number of sexual harassment and sexual assault cases are reported each year in universities around the world. Ivy Leagues made the headlines these past years for similar cases.

     Being a place of education where the men and women of tomorrow are being educated, how and what can universities do to prevent sexual harassment?

     First, I would like to inform you, dear readers, that I was not able to get any information for universities as to what they put into place to prevent sexual harassment or to protect victims. It came to my attention (from students) that nothing is in place to protect victims of sexual harassment and assault when it occurs on campus, in classes, etc., and overall, around the world, when measures and put into place, they are extremely limited and put a lot of the burden on the victims.

     I can talk about what I know, and that is the universities that I have attended. At University de Montréal, you need to look for information to get it, and the process to report any kind of harassing behavior is pretty heavy and complicated and unclear. Columbia University on the other hand forces every new student to take an online information session that informs them about the university’s strict policies entailing gender-based misconduct. This info-session, that I took before starting my program, is mandatory for every new student. It consists of two parts:

  1. A 30 to 40 minutes long mix of slides, videos, and quizzes. This edutainment presentation informs Columbia students about NY state law and the university’s policy on sexual harassment. I have learned a lot about my rights, my duties and on and out of campus resources available to me in case I experience any form of harassment or discrimination based on my gender, race, political or religious beliefs.
  2. New students have to choose between a wide variety of activities and/or assignments. All of them relate to gender-based misconduct and how to fight them.

 

     These two activities helped me not only get reassured that the University’s got my back but also I got to know what kind of help I can have. The different campuses offer confidential and non-confidential services. When I talked to the people working at the sexual violence response, they explained to me that when a victim comes to their services, the service is first confidential. The victims come to them to find a safe space, where they can share their stories. They are welcomed by trained professionals and volunteers who will take the time to hear them first and foremost. That is in general the first need expressed by the victims: to be heard and taken seriously.

       The victims, then, have the choice: report or not. If they decide to report officially an attack, the service provides them with the necessary advice, and they guide them to the appropriate resources, NYPD included.

     However, I was not able to get any numbers. In an attempt to preserve the public image, universities do not disclose this information. It might actually daunt potential students, who would consider the campus not safe enough.

      Is it a good or a bad thing? I don’t know, and I think that I don’t care if universities disclose this information or not. What matters the most to me is that THEY have the information, that THEY are aware of them, and that concrete and necessary actions to offer a safe environment for all their community are taken. Things were not always as bright at Columbia, but the university’s recent actions prove that when people come together, they can change things. We only need to speak up for what we think is right, for those whose voices got silenced, and for those who are afraid to speak up for themselves.

“The time for action is now, it is never too late to do something” Carl Sandburg

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         When talking about sexual harassment with some women in my network, I came to realize, that I was not the only one disheartened by the constant sexual behavior in the street and the lack of solutions offered to women to fight it.

        It is what women want. Solutions, from the governments, in the form of laws and strict measures, to punish the attackers. One may say that such laws already exist and that women just need to get informed. Do you know what such regulations require in terms of proofs for a complaint to be addressed? It is discouraging, and it sends a simple message to the victims: there is nothing you can do to prevent it, and we (lawmakers) are not helping.

      That is why women around the world resort to themselves to find solutions.

      Some opt to find support within the female community that surrounds them. Women can share their experiences, their feelings, their reactions. They seek recognition and acknowledgment of their bad experiences, as being a difficult one. They comment on the actions they take when faced with attackers in the streets. They congratulate each other when their actions are followed by a positive change, usually an excuse or a shameful look on the face of the attacker. They can provide for themselves the solutions governments fail to provide.

Others chose to make the proper use of technologies to prevent sexual harassment. By using social media, phone apps, websites, these women can inform each other where and what happened to them. The more women use these technologies, the better it will be able to collect data and turn it into a valuable source of information notifying women where they are at a higher risk of being sexually harassed. Nonetheless, these solutions come with an important question that needs to be raised: what final use can be done with this information?

Are women going to be forced to avoid these places fearing to be attacked if they ever set foot there? Can the government use this information to better law enforcement in these areas and providing immediate rescue to victims of sexual harassment on the sites where the chances of being attacked are high? As long as lawmakers do not get entirely committed to eradicating this social scourge, no matter the solutions local communities come with, and it will not be enough. It can even psychologically worsen the situation for women.

 

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        We can all, as individuals, do something to help a woman that is being sexually harassed in the streets. Of course, most of these attacks happen when they are alone. However, it is not entirely accurate.

        A fair number of these attacks occur in a crowded space. The attackers chose a place filled with people to make their move because they know that first, if he touches her, it will be difficult for her to identify the attacker in a crowd, and second, they know that almost no woman will speak up for herself. Why? Simply because our societies have a tendency to shame the victims. They will try and find something in the way she talks, the way she walks, what she is wearing to justify to attacker’s action.

Look around you, when you are on a bus or the subway, you will be likely to notice that a pervert is sexually harassing a woman nearby. You feel helpless? Don’t; you can make a difference today!

Go and talk to her, tell her that you saw what happened and that you can help her if you want.

If you feel comfortable confronting the attacker, do it. Explain to him, in the most poised way, that what he is doing is simply wrong!

Suggest to the victim to accompany her to a close safe place.

Ask the victim if she wants to go and report the attack at a near police station, if she agrees, stay with her, offer her support. Talking to the police is frightening. If she refuses, respect her choice.

All in all, show to the victim and the attacker that you saw what happened and that you side with the victim. The attacker will most likely be ashamed of himself and walk away or exit the train at the next station. The victim will be forever grateful. And Karma will repay you.

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             Many NGOs are trying to find solutions to advocate for women’s rights and safety.

         Sexual harassment is often included in the broad subject of violence against women. And it is a form of violence.

          Their actions are limited, as it is difficult for them to pressure the governments to make a change by passing on new laws, or better the process to facilitate the denunciation process.

         Governments’ responses are the same everywhere: how do you expect us to monitor every citizen’s behavior in the streets? How do you want us to provide more protection to women in the streets?

        NGOs came up with various ideas that could help governments take concrete actions to fight street harassment.

  • Toughen laws: this could have a discouraging effect on the attackers if they knew that there is a risk for them to get jailed or forced to pay substantial fines for their actions
  • Make it easier for the victim to file a complaint: reduce the number of proof and ease the nature of the evidence a victim needs to provide for her claim to be accepted by the competent authorities.
  • Take the financial burden off victims’ shoulders: when a victim decides to file a complaint against an attacker for sexual harassment and if the case is taken to court, all the financial burden of this action is on the victim’s shoulder, which discourages them from taking action against the harasser.
  • Provide psychological help for the victim: every person lives the experience differently. Some victims live a sexual harassment experience as abuse, and the psychological consequences of these actions might make it difficult for them to live a normal life after an attack. Governments should provide necessary help for these victims to help them cope with the psychological and social damages these experiences have on women.

        Create, fund, and implement programs: governments need to tackle the program at its source. Educational programs and awareness-raising campaigns should be put in place to inform their acknowledgment of the problem, and their willingness to act. Community work and a certain mandated hour of meetings in the form of “alcoholic anonymous” should be enforced on attackers to prevent any recurring behavior.

        Knowing how the law protects you against sexual harassment will help you know how to react when facing sexual harassment in the streets.

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         As we already know, street harassment is not limited to a country or a particular city. Every woman all around the world has been subjected to sexual harassment at least once in her life (and this is an understatement). No one is protected in any way from being sexually harassed in the streets.

        If sexual harassment is not limited to one country, some are more known for the intensity and the frequency at which these attacks occur.

        Egypt, for instance, has made the international deadlines after the Arab spring for the rise in the number of attacks that took place, during the protests. Almost all of these cases lead to sexual assault. Still, I am asking myself (and unfortunately could not find reliable sources to share and confirm my doubts), has sexual harassment in Egypt only started during/after the Arab spring or has it always been a social problem? Is it because it happened to a foreign journalist that light was brought on the subject? What if no foreign journalist was attacked during the Arab spring, would the international community be aware now of the degree of insecurity in which Egyptian women are living with?

 

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        No matter the country, the culture, the religion, women, who are the victims of sexual harassment end up being responsible for what happens to them. Clothing, makeup, shoes, behavior, there is always something wrong with the victims, something that nonsensitive and shameful mind will try to find as an excuse not to blame the attackers and stay in their comfort zone. It justifies their inaction when it happens around them, or even excuses their behavior.

 

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         Most people are afraid of stepping in to stop street harassment when they see it. They comfort themselves by thinking that it is none of their business, that they do not know any of the people involved, and so on. However, stepping in does not necessarily put the HERO in harm’s arms. You do not need to talk to the attacker if you want to save a victim. There are a million ways for anyone to stop sexual harassment. Many websites, like this one, offer a list of actions that anyone can follow to help a victim.

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        We are all responsible for everyone’s safety in the streets. How are we? Well by how we act, how we allow people to act, who we elect and who we chose to decide on a larger scale for us. That is how we are responsible for everyone’s choice. We need to make sure that our choices and our acts are inclusive, that they are for the greater good, not just for our own.

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       Things need to change. This change needs to come from us first. Then, it needs to originate from the education we provide the youth, the examples we provide them with. Our cultures need to evolve. Our mentalities need to develop. We need to start thinking in a more “gender-inclusive” way. Making no difference between men or women; feminine or masculine gender. We need to this about ourselves in terms of humans before thinking about ourselves in terms of individuals.

     This shift in mentalities and education is imperative if we want to save the next generations of women. Media need to change the way they portray women. Strong feminine role models need to be portrayed on TV, in magazines and in song lyrics. Respect needs to become a habit. The time women were judged by their look is over; we need to understand that if a man is allowed to walk in shorts and be shirtless, a woman has the right to do the same. The over-sexualization of women’s bodies is over, and it needs to change.

      By changing this thinking; men will stop thinking that they have a say in the way women live, the way they dress, and the choices they make for themselves. Men will understand that their gender does not make them entitled to anything when it comes to women’s bodies.

      It needs to change because if we don’t we only make it easier for men to go from sexual harassment to sexual assault. Most of the rape and sexual assault cases started with sexual harassment. Because the victims decided to ignore it, the attacker thought that it meant that she was ok with it and went to the next step in his head. Because the victim fought back, the attacker thought that she needed to learn respect. Because no one steps up, no one confronts them. No one draws a line and says STOP. Nonetheless, it needs to stop, and women need to feel safe again when walking in the streets. It is a public space, not a man’s exclusive space. I want to feel safe when I board the train to go from place to place. I do not want to make sure, every time I want to go out that I did not forget my pepper-spray to feel that I can protect myself. I want to feel that I have nothing to protect myself against when I go out. I want to feel as safe and free outside my house, outside my classroom, than any other male person outside. It is a fundamental right, and we all need as human beings to fight for it.


WhatsApp Image 2020-05-25 at 4.50.34 PMAbout the author:

Lina Kel was born in Canada and raised in Morocco. At 17, she moved back to Canada to complete her studies and enrolled in a double major bachelor in Economics and Politics at Université de Montréal followed by a certificate in Industrial Relations. Following this, she completed a master’s degree in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University in the City of New York where she chose to write her master thesis on the so-called conflict in the Sahara, and also interned at the Moroccan Permanent Mission the United Nations. During her master’s, she lived for a short period of time in Bangkok where she interned at the UNDP focusing her work on a regional initiative called N-Peace, which promotes women’s place and efforts in peacebuilding and peacemaking in seven southern Asian countries. She isnow working in operations management at an IT company in Montreal.  

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