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I escaped Damascus and the incessant sexual harassment on its streets

I escaped Damascus and the incessant sexual harassment on its streets

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Opinion Women’s Rights Arab Migrants

Wednesday 15 March 202306:35 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

"هربتُ بعيداً يا دمشق"... عن التحرش والتلطيش والأسماء العديدة لانتهاك أجسادنا


Let me tell you about Damascus.

The city of jasmine, jasmine, thyme, lemon balm, orange blossom, papyrus and nostalgia...

It didn’t mean anything to a girl who had just turned twelve and needed to walk alone in its streets.

Even though I have lived all my life in Damascus in an area that’s considered sheltered, and that Syrians call the "Abu Rummaneh" neighborhood, and it isn't inhabited by the "foreigners" that the people of Damascus claim have destroyed the city.

I never thought that the people of Damascus themselves were better than any other inhabitants of the city, since that city was not safe for me and for girls and women in general. I lived in the Damascus that I know, the Damascus that didn’t protect its daughters, even though it prided itself in honor, dignity, chivalry, courage, valor and nobility.

I lived in the Damascus that didn’t protect its little girls, even though it prided itself in honor, dignity, chivalry, courage, valor and nobility

But I didn’t see any of these qualities, and I am not just talking about Damascus the city. What I’m going to say in reality includes all of Syria, and goes far beyond what I know, because what’s hidden is harsher and much more severe for the women of the city than what's told.

In Damascus, I have been subjected to harassment in public spaces since early childhood. I’ve been touched all over my body, without exception, and groped in public transportation. Taxi drivers have threatened me with kidnapping and rape, and I’ve heard all kinds of verbal harassment and "catcalling", which is often taken very lightly by the Syrian street and collected in joke books. In my city, the beauty and attractiveness of a girl is measured by the number of "catcalls" she gets on the street, and the "catcalling" did not stop for me even when I was pregnant with a big belly in my mid-twenties.

In my city, the beauty and attractiveness of a girl is measured by the number of "catcalls" she gets on the street

No one respected my existence as a little girl, and no one thought that young girls also have the right to play freely, to run and ride the bicycle on the road, to jump and make noise and raise their voices. Everything, no matter how innocent, would trigger harassment. Our very existence was enough to trigger those animalistic instincts on the street.

At a certain age, I thought that men couldn’t control touching their privates, and that they even needed to grab them on the street, and even though I was unsettled by this habit, I remained convinced for several years that it was something they could not control. Apparently, the men in the city need to grab their genitals on the street for some reason that wasn't clear to me.

Then I was thirteen years old, running to the public transport bus, flattening myself against the seat by the window to protect one side of my body, while on the other side, I’d use my school bag to violently shove it between me and any man who tried to stick to me as soon as he sat next to me. Neither my obvious annoyance with them, nor my defensive body movements, or my angry school bag meant anything to any of the passengers, not the men, the women, or anyone.

I had to defend myself on this thorny road, and I was often blamed for what I'd been wearing. "You can't wear tight pants without expecting to be harassed. Change your clothes and live comfortably."

For many years, I believed that I was to blame for the amount of harassment I was exposed to in public spaces, and that changed the way I dress to this day

For many years, I believed that I was to blame for the amount of harassment I was exposed to in public spaces, and that changed the way I dress to this day. There was tremendous physical pressure on me. I only wanted one thing; to walk anywhere without feeling danger, to travel through the streets of the city without fear, to ride public transportation without anyone hurting me.

It didn't stop on the public roads. It even reached me and all my friends at beauty and hair salons, in language centers, within private and public educational centers, in clinics, and just about everywhere.

The good morals of my city did not offer me any protection, rather, I alone developed a strange way of walking the streets of Damascus.

I go down to the street and study the road laid out in front of me. I make sure to avoid passing by the young man standing on the corner of the road. I quickly run by when I have to pass a group of young men. I walk in the middle of the street away from the sidewalk, and I suddenly cross the street recklessly to run away from one of them. I dodge and evade all the harassers and non-harassers on the road to reach my destination without receiving any harmful touches.

Just as there were streets teeming with harassers, the university was also another one of those annoying spaces. There, harassment went beyond mere catcalls and unwelcome touches, and getting good grades and passing subjects can only be achieved after a private visit to the teacher's office, or the professor.

Just as the streets were teeming with harassers, university was also one of those annoying spaces. There, harassment went beyond mere catcalls and unwelcome touches, and getting good grades can only be achieved after a private visit to the professor's office

What do I remember from Damascus? I remember my indignation, my anger, my desperate desire to live a safe life, and I didn't think at the time that there could be a better place. I did not understand that what I and other girls were subjected to was called violence, abuse, threats, and violation. I thought that this was what the real world looked like, that I would survive by evading and dodging my way on the streets, by hiding and perhaps by getting married, and walking alongside a friend. In Damascus, we were in need of protection.

Without going into the details of the harassment, my father provided us with a small stick that we carried in our bags wherever my sister and I went, along with a can of pepper spray.

But I was also afraid of making any reaction, so what was my real strength in a street full of harassers?

And who was that girl who dared to answer back to harassers?

I ran far, far away, Damascus... I have no desire to ever return to you

Once, I ran away from a taxi driver when he stopped at a traffic light. I suddenly ran out without paying him, and ran non-stop for fifteen minutes in several random directions without looking back. It wasn't because he had said anything to me, but because he would turn back to leer at me every few moments, and kept stretching out his arm to the back seat and looking at my little feet and face, then swallowing heavily.

I ran far, far away, Damascus... I have no desire to ever return to you.

On the other side of life and the world, my daughter is growing up in the European city of Prague. She rides a bike on the road, runs and dances sometimes. She goes to public pools, visits her friends in their homes, and seems happy.

She doesn't care about or notice most details. I try to explain to her how girls should sit, and she looks at me in surprise, "Mama, are you okay?"

I want to tell her that the world here is better for young girls than there, and that she is actually lucky, but deep down I don't think it's a better place because harassers are unwilling to practice their violations against us and our daughters, but it is the law and public morals that have authority over everyone here. Societies here obey strict laws regarding women and girls on the streets and in public places, and harassers on the streets can be taken to police stations, but I know that they exist and are present in abundance. They are merely waiting for opportunities to extend their hands to our bodies. I'm not delusional, but rather I see what my daughter hasn’t seen and what most European women haven’t seen. I sense harassment from a single glance, because I have developed special senses for my own protection. But how does my daughter develop these senses without being exposed to my experiences, and is it enough to talk to her at length for her to realize the magnitude of the calamity?

In my early years in the Czech capital, Prague, I loved to dance, to go to nightclubs to really dance. I always wanted to dance freely without being harassed by anyone.

A group in Berlin has developed an initiative called "sahrah". In it, there’s a clear list of those who can join, and it keeps all harassers out, and creates a safe space for women and girls to dance freely

My friends and I panic. There’s a man holding my hand and another hugging me for a picture. Both are completely unknown people to me, and harassers justify their actions here with drunkenness and their blood alcohol level, while society justifies these actions for the same reason.

And so I go back to my suffocation in public spaces.

A group of friends in the German capital Berlin has recently developed an initiative called "Sahra". In it, there’s a clear list of those who can't join, and it keeps all harassers and abusers out and creates a safe space for women and girls to dance freely, once a month, once a year, once a lifetime.


* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Raseef22


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