When you live anywhere in the world, there are great things about your country, but there are also some not-so-great things. I’ve found many things to love about Palestinian culture in my month here. Between the hospitality, the food, the architecture, the history, and so many of the people I’ve met, I’ve been able to experience many of Palestine’s “perks.” But, as I said, there are some things I don’t love about living here, and the patriarchy is one of them.
From the time I step outside of the door from my host family’s compound in the morning, I feel eyes on me. Most of the time, stares from men (and women) in the streets are of the curious variety; seeing a blonde woman in Bethlehem is a rarity, so I cannot blame those first glances. It’s those lingering stares from men, the snide remarks to friend groups, and the outright cat calling and kissing noises, that really get under my skin. Although the former, curious stare happens more than the latter variety, the latter happens often enough to leave me feeling angry after I get done walking anywhere in public.
I have dealt with cat calling before in America, but not to the degree I face here. When I voiced my frustrations to one of my host brothers, he explained it to me this way: Based on Western media representations, some men believe that foreign women are “loose,” so it’s somewhat acceptable to catcall a foreign woman as opposed to a local woman. I’ve also found that most of the men who harass me are in groups when they do so. In this sense, men catcall as a show of masculinity and as a way to amuse themselves and their friend group. (I’ve had boys, probably no older than eleven or twelve years old, make kissing noises at me! Like, what?!) Another reason they feel entitled to stare or catcall me is that because I am foreign, they assume I have no male relatives here to “defend” my honor (ie. I could tell them I’m being harassed, and they would go to the catcalling man’s family and have a discussion with them/seek reparations and make the catcalling stop). This last assumption is only partially true. My host brothers and some of their friends have all jumped to my defense when I’ve walked with them, scolding men who stare at or harass me. While I’m grateful for their protectiveness, I don’t really enjoy being “defended” in this way either. When you break down the dynamic, it goes a little something like this: I am a woman and as a woman, I am subject to catcalling/staring. (While I base my generalization on a small, non-representative sample, all of the women I talk to, both local and foreign, tell me they have experienced catcalling at some point while in this country.) When I am harassed, my male friends/relatives are the only one’s who can really “set my harassers straight” and make it stop. The whole situation places me, and my fellow local and foreign women, in positions of passivity for our own safety and personhoods.
I’ve found that the best way I can reclaim power in this harassment/defense cycle is to call harassers out myself. My host sister was the first to tell me to do so. She explained that shame is powerful in this culture. The best thing to do, she told me, is to shame men publically by calling them out for what they’re doing, loudly enough for all to hear. Working past my gender socialization in order to be aggressive and call men out in the streets for harassment has been a slow process, but I’ve learned some essential phrases for doing so. Shouting, “Ayb alayk,” or “Shame on you,” seems to work well. Arabic is always more powerful than English, but I find they respond to English if my tone is harsh enough. They also respond to nonverbal gestures; usually, scowling with a raised fist or swinging my hand in their direction in a slapping motion works. Responses vary. Some men just laugh at me or shrug and talk to their friends with a “what did I do?” posture. But the best response is when you see the look of “Oh crap, I shouldn’t have messed with her,” in their eyes and they look away. Even better is when they actually leave, when they are afraid of you.
The biggest thing I want you all to take away from this blog post is that women’s harassment and oppression happens everywhere. Women around the world have to contend with stares, jeers, and harassment from men when they step outside of their doors to go to work, shop, travel, or visit friends and family. For local and foreign women in Palestine, harassment takes on the form of what I just described. There are other forms of oppression that only local women in Palestine face: education and employment discrimination, paternalism in many areas of life, transfer of land ownership to the husband’s family upon marriage, and others. As a foreign woman, I do not face those forms of oppression to the extent that they do. So even though I experience harassment on a daily basis for my gender, I am still in a position of privilege in Palestinian culture.
On Sunday, my friends and I went to Yaffa beach, near Tel Aviv. While my friend and I were in the ocean, a French man approached us and began to ask us where we were from, teasing us about our American accents. That interaction was maybe a little “creepy” but okay. The problem started when he kept coming back to us, even though we clearly had no interest in speaking with him. He asked us more questions about America, referencing “the women there.” Our consensus this time, definitely creepy. We replied in short sentences, and eventually swam away from him. Later, my friend was back on shore and I was in the ocean alone. I was floating on my back with my eyes closed. When I stood up, the man was standing right next to me, staring at me. I tell this story because I want to make this point clear: in every culture, there are men who treat women like objects. The patriarchy just works in different ways in different countries.
On that note, here’s a couple pictures of the beach so you can breathe in good air. Look at that water!