A compliment?

It happens everywhere. It happens to every woman all over the world. There are definitely differences in the extent and severity of the actions and the reactions but the ideas it is based on are everywhere just the same.

I’m talking about sexual harassment.

Yes, I have to write about it. And I’m sorry, because I can already hear people sighing because of that topic but this is exactly the reason that makes it so pressing. Due to some recent events (Brüderle, Tahrir square) on different levels of society, we have been talking a lot about the social acceptance of sexual harassment and the frequency and severity in the West – and still there is so much misunderstanding.

Some politicians (guess what party…) in the USA recently wanted to make a difference between illegitimate and legitimate rape (whereby they stated that illegitimate rape could naturally NOT result in pregnancy – yeah guys: “alles klar”), whereas other voices created initiatives (in Germany for example #Aufschrei – a hashtag on twitter where women could share their experiences about sexual harassment). So, yes it is a pressing topic but regarding the current discourse as well as ongoing practice it is, in my view, still not discussed with enough rigour, let alone follow-up actions. For all those sighing, I titled the paragraphs with the most common defensive arguments of the current situation in society. Would be great if you also read between them!

“What’s your problem? Just ignore them…”

I grew up with the advice: “ignore it” and “take it as a compliment”. And so I did. I ignored frequent sexist comments on my appearance, my body, my clothes, even my words that are perceived differently just because I am a woman. I ignored strange insinuations and sexist pick-up-lines in bars, ignored people on dancefloors touching me “accidentally” everywhere, instead of turning to them and confronting them I mostly just went away. I ignored people shouting sexist comments after me or jumping in my way when I’m riding on bike or just walking down a street and even just stepped out of the way when men in busses start weird and inappropriate body contacts under the excuse of overcrowded transport. Come on, you can always tell.

These experiences are not especially experiences that I made in Central Asia, I made them all around the world, wherever I have been. In spite of different ways and degrees, the quintessential experience stays the same – it is helplessness. Insecurity. Power inequality. It is patriarchy. And the reaction I – and most women I know – mostly choose is ignoring the situation – and thereby facilitating impunity for the perpetrator. This reaction is protective but recreates the same situations over and over. Ignore. As if I didn’t care, as if I did not want to react in a different way, to say something, to just not let them get away with it.

But it is what we are supposed to do. It is expected of us by society. I just reckoned that when I one time went after young guys spitting at me because I wore a short dress in the metro (btw. in Berlin). The people surrounding us were not reacting at all. They were annoyed – by me!

“Красавица! Sexy!” – “Take it as a compliment!”

Today, when I was cycling to the city centre I counted three men of different ages jumping in my way, and at least six shouting something after and at me. And just to make that clear, they did NOT shout at me because of my cycling on the sidewalk. I did not even count the whistles.

But what do they intend with that behavior? There is no rational purpose they would try to achieve with their actions of whistling or shouting. If they jump in my way it is probably to scare me, make me stop or just to get my attention. And of course you can easily ignore them, but it is not about the actual action, it is more about the irrational idea behind it: that they are ALLOWED to do so. That it is even a nice thing to whistle after a girl and thereby judge her appearance in a positive way.

But, now speaking to the invisible harasser: where do you think you obtained this right to judge about us or worse? A feminist blogger in Bishkek put her feelings like that:

“how can one feel glad about being objectified as something, the value of which is measured only in the so-called “hotness”? How can I feel happy about being treated like an object that can be stopped, judged, criticized, grabbed or pushed at any moment?”

And worse: Why do you think that you can decide at what time we should get home and what transport we are allowed to take, what we should or should not wear, what make-up (if any) we should use, and with whom we should be – if you warn us with that fatherly tone about all those things, are you actually aware that it is you who create the danger yourself? Of course it is not every man in the world and of course there are women who never get to be a target at all, but there is enough evidence to speak of a global phenomenon of patriarchy.

In the moment I was being spit at, I did certainly not feel flattered, nor afraid, I was simply puzzled by the fact that it had happened to me and even more by the feeling it created. The feeling of being dirty, embarrassed, and dishonored. There are probably few (privileged*) men who ever felt that way, but probably the majority of women can imagine how I felt – I would not have expected it to feel like that, since it was definitely not a dangerous situation at all. But there is much more to the symbolism than to the actual action.

“If you wear that, it’s kinda your fault, you know…”

A few weeks ago when we went to a club, a friend of mine was asked for her cell number by a guy. She refused to give it to him even after he was insisting. He threatened to persecute her, and even to kidnap her to get her married (bride kidnapping is fairly common in Kyrgyzstan, which is another topic). She was so petrified that she did not want to leave the club (several incidents had happened the months before where girls had been beaten up and sexually abused by groups of men on the streets) and a friend of us had to accompany her home. I also heard stories of girls being harassed in taxis (which is why I was given the tip to always pretend to be married), and even raped. This is usually justified with the girl’s behavior of being outside THAT late or wearing THOSE clothes, or simply rejecting stalking behavior. You may say that this is on a completely different level than being shout after, spit at, etc., and you will be right. Nevertheless, it is in the same line of thought that all of those incidents happen. Street harassment is only one more or less subtle reminder of power inequality and superiority of men, which in the worst cases result in rape and murder of women that do not behave the way that the superior wants them to.

“And it does keep us in line, doesn’t it? In an attempt to avoid being sexually harassed on the streets, we have to constantly police ourselves. When choosing what to wear for the day, I have to think whether this outfit will attract unwanted attention or not, pick long skirts or pants, avoid wearing revealing, tight or short clothes. When going down the street, I put in the ear buds; turn the volume up to the max to block out catcalls and whistles and walk down the street, ignoring lewd smiles and stares. I avoid using certain “unsafe” streets and alleys. When seeing a large group of men approaching, I sometimes even cross to the other side of the street, or change direction and go back, all the time avoiding eye contact with them. I avoid, avoid and avoid…“

No, you certainly don’t have the right to any of those actions. And it is certainly not our fault. There is no one who gave you the right to jugde, dehumanize, petrify, or even touch or hurt the physical integrity of other people no matter what they do with their life.

And still it happens every day, every minute, every second. It happens everywhere and to every woman all over the world. There are definitely differences in the extent and severity of the actions and the reactions but the ideas it is based on are everywhere just the same.







*by that I mean that they fit in the common dominating discourse of white, middle-class men, since discrimination certainly DOES happen based on other characteristics than sex and gender. Therefore see the discourse of intersectionality.


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