“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.

“Never in my twenty-six years have I felt so self-conscious as a woman in public spaces as I did in almost every city I visited in the US.”

This summer, I spent three months travelling in the US and Canada. Although it was not my first time in the United States, having visited family and an American ex-boyfriend there several times throughout my life, it was my first time travelling extensively in the country, and my first time navigating America’s huge cities by myself. I had a marvellous time; I met amazing people whom I hope to see again in my life, and experienced so much kindness and generosity from strangers, both through using Couchsurfing, and through the people I met randomly. 

One thing stood out as a major cultural difference between the US and my home town of Edinburgh in Scotland, above the differences in language and snack foods: I consistently experienced a level of street harassment I had never faced in my life before. Of course, like most women, I have experienced whistles from building sites, shouts from the windows of vans, and drunk arseholes passing comment on my appearance as I walk home from work. I’ve been chatted up inappropriately by men while I was working in pubs and clubs. I’ve been groped while collecting glasses on the club floor. But never in my twenty-six years have I felt so self-conscious as a woman in public spaces as I did in almost every city I visited in the US. 

Some days I was catcalled by so many different men that I wished I didn’t have to walk down the streets. It would happen if I was in a jumper and trousers; it would happen if I was in a crop top and little shorts. I experienced more – far more – unsolicited comments on my appearance from strange men on the street in those three months than I had in my entire life. I couldn’t sit and have a cigarette on a public bench in the city centre without a man I didn’t know attempting to engage me in conversation. It was wearing and unpleasant, and I have the greatest admiration and respect for American women who deal with this all the time. I never truly felt unsafe, and thankfully I was never assaulted, but I felt uncomfortable and unable to just sit in happy solitude in public spaces populated by men. I would be aware when I sat down somewhere that a man would probably try and talk to me. I would start to feel wary every time a man was walking toward me on the pavement, bracing myself for a comment. 

I don’t know what it is about American culture that makes it this way for women. For what it’s worth, I did not experience anything like this level of harassment in the similarly large cities I visited in Canada. I didn’t know how to respond. For all the cultural similarities we share with the US, it is still a different country, thousands of miles from home, and it is not my culture. I was far from my family and friends. I didn’t know which men might be truly dangerous, which men might have knives or guns, which men might seriously wish me harm. And so, most of the time, I ignored the catcalls and walked on, feeling ashamed of my female body and my inaction. I made conversation with the men who approached me when I was sitting, and made excuses to leave once I felt it wouldn’t seem rude. I accommodated their harassment into my daily life, because I didn’t know what else to do. 

It was a revelation to me, even as a feminist woman, to really experience first-hand this kind of harassment. Obviously this is a problem for women everywhere, and it is far from absent in the UK. But I had never experienced it so relentlessly. Never. And I am speaking from the relatively privileged position of a straight, white, cisgender woman. It made me all the more aware of how important it is for us to fight to be allowed to walk through public spaces as women. My body is not yours to comment on, whether I’m in a bikini or a winter coat. My time is not yours to take just because you see I am an unaccompanied woman. I don’t care if you like my arse, or my tits. I don’t want to go for a drink with any man who would impose himself on me when I’m clearly uncomfortable with the interaction. I want to feel safe and comfortable walking down the street. I want to feel able to sit alone in public without being hassled.

A bar love poem (a note to drinkers)

With a new job interview on monday and the hope of getting out of bar work, I wrote a little poem about how i feel some of the men treat female bartenders..obviously not all are like this but I would say at least half of the men that come into the bars I have worked in in the last 5 years have been.

Your suit hangs looser than the magnum condoms your girlfriend buys
You’re drinking in my bar while she’s out talking to other guys
You tell me your sob story and ask what I would do
But if I were yours I’d probably be cheating too

You don’t even have work to do,
You could be at home trying to work things through
Maybe wine and dine, dinner for two
But you chat me up hoping I’ll go home with you

I’m more than half your age
And I don’t care about your hourly wage
Your only worth to me is the drinks you buy
And the amex card that you wave

My hourly wage is enough
I don’t need you to “take care of me” and “buy me stuff”
I’m not surprised your girls not there when you wake up

I serve men like you on a daily basis
Looking at girls with want on their faces
Grabbing arses and starring at tits
Who get offended when told “back off you cant have this”

I suggest approaching from a different angle
Take your drink and just be thankful
I don’t want to be in your twisted love triangle.

By Mollie – 21

Your Body

Many thanks to Mythili for sending us this great poem. Mythili recounts her experience of growing up in the South Indian state of Kerala. Even after moving away from what she calls her first home, some scars remain deep. They are given voice through this poem about the Indian woman’s body.

your body

your body is not your own,
when it is owned, it is owned.
not by you, by your patronymic name
and when you grow up, by your wedded name.

your body is not your own,
when it belongs, it belongs
not to you, to your husband when he plays
and when you give birth, to your birth helper.

your body is not your own,
when it pains, it pains
not because of you, by the glaring gaze
and when you dress, by your invitation to play.

your body is not your own,
when it bleeds, it bleeds
not because of you, by the masked vigilante
and when you cry, by the misery of your doom.

your body is not your own,
when it satiates, it satiates
not you, the hungry passersby
and when you crumble, by the masochist ego.

your body is not your own,
when it breaks, it breaks
not because of you, by the Suleiman’s hand
and when you fall, by the megalomaniac.

your body is not your own,
when it is chained, it is chained
not because of you, by history
and when you die, by the daughter you leave behind.

We love when you send us things! You can always reach us at projectnaked@gmail.com or tweet us @project_naked. Art, poems, writing – however you want to tell the story of your body, we want to hear it.

“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.