“I have never felt so lacking in agency as I do out in public here, because clearly my agency doesn’t matter to them.”

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.

“My lovely, ridiculous body.”

I could tell you all about the day I realized I was fat. I went home, locked myself in the toilet, wept. I could tell you that I kept that up for about three days a week, for about seven years. I could tell you all about the blowjobs I didn’t want to give, to boys who were happy to let me suck them off but wouldn’t touch me in return.

I had never had anyone touch me sexually until I was nineteen. I had, however, given, oh, probably thirty blowjobs?

The boy who said the thought of me naked made him felt sick. The many, many times my mum dragged me to the gym. The way that, to this day, I eat sugary food in private and cry afterwards.

But then, when I was 21, I was diagnosed with Lichen Sclerosus. A rare autoimmune disease that attacks the vulval skin, until it lacerates and comes off. It can stop normal intercourse, can make the clitoris scar over and disappear, and it has no cure.

I may well take steroids for it for the rest of my life.

But!! It has changed me. It has helped me. It has made me love my body, love what it can do, love its well parts, the way they work.

Lichen Sclerosus is an illness that responds to stress, to psychological duress. And so – I think, I caused it, by hating this lovely, lovely body.

Steroids make me fatter. They make my face swell up. I don’t like that.

I do like the fact that when this illness is under control, I am blessed with a functioning cunt again.

I do like:
*learning mindfulness
*properly negotiating sex using words – finding partners for whom my condition is not a difficulty.
*lovely long masturbation sessions
*walking with my strong legs.
*dancing with this lovely, faulty, imperfect, friendly body.

Loving your body is a hard thing. It exists as the physical token of all that you are, and that is hard – we all want to be the best, shiniest token, when in fact most people are looking at our personality.

So, there are days when I am in so much pain I can’t walk. Or days when steroids give me bad Cushings syndrome. Crying days, lonely-till-I-die days, why am I still not thin enough days.

But mainly? There are thank heavens for my body days. My lovely, ridiculous body, capable of giving – and now I am older, receiving – so much pleasure.

Anonymous woman -age unknown

“I never realised the extent to which men claim ownership over women’s bodies in everyday life until I worked in a nightclub.”

I never realised the extent to which men claim ownership over women’s bodies in everyday life until I worked in a nightclub. The club I work in is young and trendy clientele for the most part – not so much the rowdy rugby and stag do side of things, more students and young people of similar ages – and generally overtly sexual touching isn’t a problem. I’ve probably only been actually “groped” once or twice in the six months I’ve worked there. But I’ve been flashed (once), called a “dyke” for intervening when a customer wouldn’t stop harassing a staff member for her phone number, and lost count of the number of times men have stopped me by grabbing my arm or standing in my way, or “guided” me through basically empty spaces with hands that are just, almost, not quite on my bum.

For me, the “compliments” are often the most uncomfortable part. Don’t get me wrong, I can take a compliment. When a young guy comes up to the cloakroom, pupils big with ecstasy, and says, “You’re beautiful”, or, “You look nice tonight”, or even, sometimes, “I love you”, I don’t mind. It can even be quite lovely. They just wanted to say a nice thing, and they expressed it respectfully, or at least through a joyful haze of drugs that I can understand. But the guy who grabs you by the arm, stopping you from passing him, to tell you that you have “a cracking body”, or “a great arse”, or “really nice tits” – I hate that guy. I don’t know how to answer that guy. Usually I say thank you, the words dripping with anything but their usual meaning. The way I feel about my body isn’t contingent on how a random man in a nightclub feels about it. I don’t feel any more or less beautiful when someone talks to me that way. What I do feel is uncomfortable, dirty, and guilty. I probably shouldn’t be wearing that top, or such tight trousers. On some level I can’t help but feel like I’ve done something to make them think it’s ok, “led them on” by smiling or by just being there in front of them. It doesn’t make me dislike the way my body looks, but it can make me feel ashamed of the reaction it’s elicited.

There are numerous respectful ways to pay someone a compliment. If you want to try and flirt with a bartender while she’s at work, the chances are she’s not interested – trust me. She’s busy, she’s sober, and there’s a good chance she’s trying to figure out how to politely end the conversation because she has shit to do. But complimenting her tits isn’t going to help your case. You’re creeping her out. Tell her you like her outfit, or her hair; strike up a conversation about the band on her t-shirt; ask her if she likes her job, and listen. Basically anything except drawing attention to the fact you’re staring at her body and wondering what she looks like naked. This doesn’t just apply to flirting with bartenders, obviously.

The club I work at is underground (as in physically so, not culturally) and on a busy night it’s fucking boiling. Usually I’m wearing a cropped top or something slashed down the sides, because it’s so warm, and my stomach and ribs will be out. Some men take that as an invitation to touch me there. They’ll touch my bellybutton jewellery, or the tattoo on my side, or sometimes – weirdly – tickle my stomach like you would a baby’s (although thankfully no one has yet blown a raspberry on my tummy). Don’t do that. That isn’t ok. Some men, when they see the look on your face – in that moment when you say nothing because you still can’t quite believe, even after all these years, that a stranger thought it was ok to put their hands on your bare stomach – immediately apologise. I don’t blame those men. They’re just drunk and got carried away and they’re products of a society that taught them it was ok. They know they did something wrong and they’re sorry. Maybe they won’t do it next time, maybe they will, but in that moment they know they shouldn’t have touched you, and they apologise. But a lot of them don’t. A lot of them think you should be flattered.

But I’m not flattered. You’re a knob. Not only am I at work, where my need to be at least moderately polite to you prevents me from telling you to get to fuck as I might on a night out, but in general it is just not ok to touch strangers in anything even approaching an intimate manner. I can’t imagine a scenario in which I would stop someone walking past me to stroke his biceps and tell him he’s sexy. It’s just absurd and incomprehensible to me.

I’m lucky to work somewhere that takes a strong stance on mistreating the bar staff. Our door staff will chuck guys out for groping or intimidating you, no questions asked, and our management will back us up. I’m also lucky that, in general, overtly sexually threatening behaviour is rare in our venue to begin with. But I shouldn’t have to consider myself lucky that I only occasionally get groped at work. I shouldn’t have to field “compliments” from men who’re looking at me with such a leer in their eye that I feel dirty and want to cover myself completely. Men need to stop thinking that they have the right to touch me, or to stare at me like I’m meat. Nobody has that right, and your desire to touch someone or stare at her tits doesn’t override her right not to feel uncomfortable and objectified just for being outside her house and being a woman.