Women in Arab societies face many difficulties when they leave the house to work, when they go to the market or simply when they navigate public places. The most significant of these difficulties is harassment, which women experience almost on a daily basis. In Yemen in particular, harassment has become an everyday occurrence that weighs on women – a matter of anxiety whenever they think of leaving their houses.
Abeer Salam, a film maker based in the central province of Ibb, believes that harassment is commonplace for Yemeni women wherever they go. “Unfortunately, Yemeni society views women as ‘awra’, or shame, and as a non-free being. Some consider harassment to be normal, and women are often accused of being the cause of the harassment”, she explained.
Harassment is defined as any form of unwelcome words or acts of a sexual nature that violate a person's body, privacy or feelings, and makes the person feel uncomfortable, threatened, afraid, disrespected, insulted, abused, intimidated, violated and treated merely as a body.
According to Salam, although harassment does not affect a particular group of women, “unveiled and working women suffer the greatest share of harassment because they dared to challenge the negative customs and traditions that society created to place women under more restrictions”. She believes that women must be strong in the face of all challenges they face, and not allow anyone to harass or intimidate them.
“I have the right to walk in the street, it is public property, and I have the right to work, and I have the right to exercise my liberty without facing harassment from men. I will not allow anyone to harass me, not with a look, a word, or anything else, and I will fight that even if I have to slap the offender with my hand. All women must be strong and courageous to deal with this phenomenon,” she asserted.
Most women in Yemen face harassment of all kinds, making some think a thousand times before leaving the house. NM, a married Yemeni woman and mother of four children who chose to remain anonymous, believes that it is almost as if women are expected to accept harassment by those who want to harass them, and that harassment may occur even in the presence of a husband or children.
One day NM was harassed while sitting next to her husband in public transport. Although she was visibly pregnant in her sixth month, she was still harassed by a man sitting in the back seat who touched her with his hand. “At that moment I grabbed his hand to show everyone that he was harassing me and screamed, and after that moment, all I remember was the beating he received from my husband, and then he was kicked out of the bus.”
However, the story did not stop there. The incident had a negative impact on her relationship with her husband. NM faced reproach from him, and he started to focus on how she was dressing. “Now my husband is asking me to cover my hands and eyes, and he blames me as if I am the cause of the harassment. I wonder why women are always to blame, while excuses are given to the men who harass women, with their looks, words or obscenities? The reason is simply because society does not appreciate women, and views her with a mind that is fixated on ‘sex’.”
Women cause harassment
Although some see men as the cause of harassment, due to the lack of community awareness there are those who believe that women are also an integral cause of the problem.
Reem Amer works in the private sector in Sana’a and believes that women are the cause of harassment because of their clothes and behavior that attract men. Defending her position, she said, “I’m not here to absolve men, but women are the ones who push men towards harassment through their appearance, tight clothing and their strong use of perfume that draws attention, along with their laughter and the way they talk. Women must pay attention to all that and not offer men a chance to harass them.”
Today, the approach towards harassment is different from the past as it is now practiced under the guise of flirtation and admiration. “Although the new generation is more educated and more aware than the previous generation, still the rate of harassment continues to increase due to the lack of morality”, Amer added. She insists that women would not face harassment if they abide by the traditions of their society.
Ahmed Taher, a public sector employee, agrees with Amer that women are the ones who give men the opportunity to harass them. “Most men only harass women when they are given a chance to, and every woman has to watch her actions and behaviors”, he adds.
Unemployment and the absence of deterrents
Yemen faces difficult political and economic conditions due to the conflict that erupted more than two and a half years ago. This led the country to a major security breakdown, because of the absence of strong state authorities.
According to Weaam Ahmed, a private sector employee, harassment has increased dramatically during the war, as a result of unemployment among young people who found no other way to fill their free time. They do nothing else but “linger on the streets and harass women”.
In addition, Ahmed notes that the absence of a law deterring harassment, alongside the absence of monitoring or reporting mechanisms, are also reasons that lead to the increase of harassment. “Offenders took advantage of the absence of laws and sanctions. They thought that women are helpless and that the doors are open for them to do as they please without any consequences, especially with the silence of society,” she explained.
Yemeni laws do not include any articles that penalize or explicitly criminalize harassment. However, there is one law that punishes the immoral acts contained in article (273) of the Yemeni Criminal and Penal Code. It criminalizes any act that violates public morality or public decency, including exhibitionism, intentional exposure of private parts and indecent words or gestures. Article (274) of the same law provides for imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or a fine for any person who has committed an immoral act that has been witnessed by others.
Ahmed stressed that society must be aware of the seriousness of harassment, and its negative impact on women. Women are living beings with the same rights and dignity as men, and society must stand with women, not with oppression. “Women should not be blamed for how they behave or dress. Society must understand that this problem is caused by men who always harass women even if they are covered from head to toe.”
Families must raise their children with awareness and treat their sons and daughters with equality starting from early childhood. “Harassment was not prevalent in previous generations, although illiteracy was widespread, and this is due to better ethics and moral beliefs, and that is what we need right now”, she emphasized.
Abdul Rahman al-Jaber, a Yemeni citizen, agrees with Ahmed and believes that every woman is free to act as she wishes as long as she does not harm anyone. He trusts that Yemeni society still has the chivalry and gallantry that makes it stand in the face of every offender and on the side of any woman who seeks help. “Society must understand that this view towards women is wrong and that everyone must stand up to any offender and deter him in order to end this phenomenon”, he concluded.
Ghaida al-Absi, a gender consultant, believes that “the absence of deterrent laws against the offender is not the main obstacle towards tackling harassment at the moment, but rather how the victim can act in the absence of a state”. Al-Absi points out that “in order to confront harassment, the solution is to work hard to raise the awareness of people to act as protectors of the victim and as deterrents to offenders, especially that one of the most important causes of harassment is embedded in the culture of society and its view that objectifies women. Society does not see women, like it does men, as an independent human who has the right to walk freely in the street without being subjected to any harassment”.
According to the latest statistics, reported at a regional conference on sexual harassment held in 2010 in Cairo, 90 per cent of Yemeni women have experienced harassment. So far there has been no statistical survey or specific study of harassment during the war.
In recent years, al-Absi began her first organized effort to combat harassment in Yemen, and in 2011, together with others, started a ‘Safe Streets’ campaign against harassment.
From a social point of view, these civic efforts are important, provided there is also a multi-level social solidarity to combat this phenomenon. Activating the role of the media to discuss harassment openly and transparently is at the forefront of these efforts. In addition, there must be efforts to raise awareness among the younger generation in schools, and address the seriousness of harassment and its individual and collective psychological consequences. This includes the need to correct the prevalent concepts in the school curricula, as well as in mosques and in the media, on women and the related stereotypes and beliefs that contribute to widespread harassment.