Last week I hit a teenage schoolboy in the face. Now, that’s a way to get your attention. Except what I was trying to do, at the point when this happened, was to not get any attention, to walk unnoticed through the streets of the city I live in. You wouldn’t think that’s too much to ask, but here in Cairo it is an impossibility.
Put your phone in your bag, grab your keys, one last check in the mirror to make sure you’ve not got toothpaste around your mouth again. As you walk out of the front door and lock it behind you, you feel your shoulders start to hunch, your eyes fix on the floor, lines and knots of tension spread down from your neck. Step out into the streets of Cairo; your body is no longer your own.
Harassment here is a well-documented phenomenon. There are even those who believe the increase in reports of harassment since the revolution is a positive sign, that it shows more openness and a willingness to talk about it. This means in theory that the problem might be one minuscule step along the way to being solved. Be that as it may (and for what it’s worth, from my three years of living here I don’t see any progress at all) – these reports and the articles and the discussions cannot cover what it feels like to walk down the street in this country.
Impossible to explain the effects of the staring, the nudging and pointing, the jeering, the honking of car horns. The way you shrink inside yourself. The depression or the incandescent rage, depending on your mood and how much sleep you’ve had. This overwhelming feeling of how DARE you. What makes these people think that my body is something to be commented on, shouted at, gawked at?
I have never felt so lacking in agency as I do out in public here, because clearly my agency doesn’t matter to them. It doesn’t matter that I am an actual person, with thoughts and feelings and a reason to be walking somewhere; all that is totally irrelevant. To them I am just a body. All-too visible while my ‘self’, for want of a better word, feels like it is fading. It wears you down, this assault on your sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
I cannot offer explanations, and to be honest by this point I can’t be bothered to. Unsympathetic as it might be to say it, I don’t care why it’s like this anymore. I just wish it wasn’t. I shout, when the effort isn’t too overwhelming, and give the finger a lot, just hoping that even among the laughter and jeers some part of the message that this behaviour is not OK goes in. I am not optimistic about attitudes so ingrained changing.
So this brings us back around to the teenage schoolboy, who I hit in the face because he grabbed me in the street. It was 8:30am and I was walking to the swimming pool, a half-hour walk in the early-morning cool which in another city would be a pleasant way to wake up. Not here, however. I always have to run the gauntlet of a group of 50 schoolboys hanging around on the street, and on this particular occasion one grabbed me. Pushed by a friend, dared, by accident, on purpose? Quite frankly, I don’t give a shit.
While writing this I was all too aware that it is perhaps not directly relevant to the message of this blog, but the experience of daily harassment has made me more aware than ever how our bodies can so often be viewed as detached from us as people, and how this treatment can affect how you see yourself, how you carry yourself, how you react in different situations. I never thought that my refrain would be ‘just leave me alone’, but now the ability to walk down the street, going peacefully about my dull daily life, seems a necessity to keep the relationship with my body secure.