This post originally appeared on Rachel Kurzyp’s blog, and is re-printed here with permission. [I wrote this post after I had been living in Dhaka, Bangladesh for eight months. After a man tried to grope me while I was going for a run, I was pretty upset so I asked my female colleagues (local Bangladeshi women) about what I should do. They told me about their own very confronting sexual harassment experiences and that there was no ‘right’ way to react, and they believe the issue must first be addressed in the home. This piece is my attempt to discuss the everyday realities of sexual harassment for a white Australian female living overseas.]
I see their eyes look me up and down. Lingering first on my face and then my chest. Sometimes they turn and watch me as I walk past them. They make no attempt to hide their intense, unblinking stare. As they probe me with their eyes I shiver and I’m filled with the deepest disgust. Some men nudge their friends to join in and others try to start a conversation with me, ‘you want it sexy’ they say with conviction – lines they must have heard in movies.
It was hard for me to imagine when I was living in Australia that sexual harassment was an unavoidable and everyday occurrence for women living in Bangladesh.
I had heard stories, read commentary and watched the news so I wasn’t blind to the sexual harassment that goes on in this country but I didn’t fully appreciate the effect it has on a person until I was experiencing it myself. It’s draining, frustrating and distressing trying to brush off constant sexual advances.
At first I tried to avoid it and pretend it wasn’t an issue. I’d keep my head down and stare only a metre or so in front, never daring to make eye contact. However, this only gave me intermittent relief because persistent gawkers would demand I give them attention by singing out ‘hello’ and ‘ma’am’, and if this didn’t work they would step in my path so I had to look up to miss running into them. Trying to convince myself I could ignore the issue became draining after it followed me into supermarkets while I brought milk and bread, the office while I held meetings and my home while I waited for household repairs to be completed.
Soon I grew frustrated and instead of ignoring the blatant stares I decided to draw attention to them. Now I stared directly into men’s eyes and looked their body up and down as they did to mine. To those that felt the urge to stop what they were doing and swivel themselves to follow me or lock eyes on my chest I would ask loudly if they had something to say or wave my hand in their face to disrupt their distasteful gaze. I grew angrier every time I was confronted with men’s eyes wandering over me – not just beggars or workman but business men too. The extent of the issue overwhelmed me and I grew tired fighting against it.
Now I find the whole issue distressing.
Distressing because I have realised, as others have done, the depth of the problem. It runs so deep in the culture of Bangladesh that no reaction – avoidance or aggression – by itself will make a difference. So I believe I found myself in a similar situation to that of my local female friends. I either have to accept it as a part of everyday life and in doing so try my best to reduce its effect on my well-being – wear an orna every day and put the hood up on a rickshaw to hide myself – or go up against Bangladesh’s culture and challenge the very notion. Both require unbelievable strength. I now understand why some women would choose to accept it rather than the latter.
When I was in Australia I would always say women in countries like Bangladesh should fight, stand up and make noise but I was naïve because for most women in Bangladesh this wouldn’t even cross their mind. And a thousand steps would have to be taken before this type of action would be possible or feasible. In a country that doesn’t fully recognise women or their rights and that resorts to protesting and campaigning for every issue, I’m not sure that shouting about gender inequality would even have any effect.
Instead I think women who are able and want to fight against sexual harassment should start at home with their children, not out on the streets.
They should tell their daughters they are beautiful, smart and are equal to their brothers, fathers and uncles. That they deserve to be seen and heard not ogled and hushed. Mothers should show their son’s that women are to be respected, valued and cherished. And that they should tell their family, friends and peers this when they see a women being treated the opposite.
Sexual harassment is only a symptom of a much larger and complex issue of gender inequality as we all know but for those of us who don’t have to experience every day it’s hard to imagine just how unavoidable the issue is and more importantly the right way to react. After six months of the violating stares and leering comments I still don’t know what to do. Maybe every reaction is the right one? Sexual harassment is not something you can prepare for and I don’t think it makes it any easier or harder knowing women shouldn’t have to put up with it. And don’t to the same degree in other parts of the world. What I now know is that sexual harassment hurts the first time, as it does the second, and all the times after that.
How do you think women and men should react to sexual harassment?
Want further reading on the subject? Here is a list of articles that I think look at the topic in different ways:
Featured image shows a young girl in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by Rachel Kurzyp.
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