Alex Shams is a graduate student of Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. He has been active in feminist causes for years. His academic research focuses on gender in Islamic political movements, specifically in Iran. He wrote this piece while living in Lebanon for a year, where he was working primarily on Palestinian rights issues but was also involved in the anti-sexual harassment project, Qaweme Harassment.
Special thanks to Alex for allowing us to republish his article on The Cathartist. We hope you enjoy reading his perspective and insights on the important topic of Sexual Harassment/Violence.
You may visit the website where this piece was originally featured: Sawtalniswa.com
It’s funny how sometimes in life you feel like you see everything, but later realize in fact you can see nothing.
Our experience of the world is shaped completely by how the world perceives us, and even the most basic ideas we might receive as obvious and unchanging- how it feels to walk down the street, for example- are all extremely dependent on who we are, what we look like, and how we are perceived. This, I think, is obvious to many people, and particularly for many women, but as a man I spent many years wholly unaware of the idea that every aspect of my daily life and my daily experience could and would be drastically different if I was not perceived by others as a biological man. Privilege is something truly blinding when you have it, but painfully obvious when you don’t.
It was one, hot Egyptian summer some years ago when I finally began the process of confronting my privilege. Studying in Cairo, I had arrived and spent a week on my own before starting classes. One of the first nights, I went out with a fellow student who I had met in my first class. For me, Cairo’s streets were exhilarating and liberating- a million people out at once walking and yelling and talking and screaming and smoking arguile and doing everything twenty-four hours a day was shocking and beyond exciting to me.
To say the least, I was eager to enter Downtown at night and be soaked up in it’s liveliness with a friend. As we began our walk, searching for an old restaurant in Downtown’s alleyways, I became quickly aware of the fact that these streets were not so liberating for my friend. Suddenly, I came to absorb the fact that 50% of Egypt’s population was NOT cruising these streets, and my friend was a part of that demographic that did not feel particularly “exhilarated” by crowds of thousands of men staring and itching to offer disgusting remarks of approval.
I realized that the week I had spent walking Downtown, feeling liberated and alive and imagining that I was seeing everything this city had to offer, was a week of complete blindness. I had no idea what it was like to experience this city as 50% of the population, and of the world, experience it, and words like harassment were not even a part of my vocabulary. Everything I had experienced in life had been experienced with a blindfold of privilege. I needed to rethink everything I had ever imagined were “how things were.”
The years since that summer have involved a lot of listening, a lot of trying to understand, a lot of reading, and a lot of getting angry. I will never know exactly what it feels like to be objectified and sexualized and subjected to verbal harassment and sexual harassment and the fear of sexual assault and the revulsion women feel on an ongoing basis. And as much as I listened to friends vent and fume over experiences they share with me, the fact is that my presence would deter these men from engaging in their demeaning games- meaning I would never be able to fulfill my silly, faux-gallant urge to punch someone in the face.
The fact is that as a man, and as an ally, I have to recognize my role is not in defending women or punching harassers (not that my fists would do much). Women don’t need me to defend them, and there’s no reason they should- women can defend themselves pretty damn well fine without me assuming a man needs to step in.
My role, as a male ally, is to spread awareness of the problem with other men, and make sure they recognize that Harassment, verbal and physical, is NOT okay and there is NO reason to sexualize or attack a human being merely for daring to enter the public sphere. As an ally, I must be constantly beginning conversations and entering into topics which I know many men, blinded by their privilege, will disagree with me on or blow off. It doesn’t matter if these conversations are uncomfortable, as 50% of human beings cannot go on with their daily life without being made to feel uncomfortable for the simple reason that they are women. As an activist, and as a feminist, it seems pretty damn reprehensible and misogynistic to prioritize my own momentary discomfort over the constant discomfort of billions of human beings who happen to be (mostly) female.
This is why I started the blog Qaweme Harassment. Tired of merely being able to offer sympathy to bad story after bad story, and having converted most of male friends to feminism, I decided to act and work with the Adventures of Salwa create a place for people to share their experiences as well as a way to talk about what works in terms of combating harassment. In addition, I wanted people to be able to chart where harassment was happening and visually recognize it as a phenomenon that our entire metropolis, regardless of religion, race, sect, gender presentation, etc is dealing with. And thus was born, Qaweme Harassment.
* Originally published on The Adventures of Salwa website.