“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.

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“I’m not sure if it crept up on me slowly as I advance towards 30 or if it has hit me like giant hormone fuelled rubber mallet, but in the last 6 months my ovaries have been rocking out.”

I have gotten to that age where I love babies.

I’m not sure if it crept up on me slowly as I advance towards 30 or if it has hit me like giant hormone fuelled rubber mallet, but in the last 6 months my ovaries have been rocking out. I used to not really care about pregnancy/children/being maternal but suddenly it all seems so appealing. Now the prospect doesn’t fill me with nausea and dread, but rather a feeling of wonder to see if I can do it.
The problem with this though is that the minute I try and talk about this I am instantly met with eye rolls and patronising comments. It is infuriating to be constantly confronted with the expectation that because I want children in the not distant future somehow I cannot be trusted to not get knocked up. Something I have successfully managed all through my adult life. I cannot help but feel that I cannot be trusted with such important decisions. Something that is very obviously highlighted by the slow erosion of female reproductive rights globally. Society does not trust us enough to choose when to have or not have a baby.

There is such a double standard about when you choose to have children now. If you decide when you are younger you are trapping people, giving up on life, like somehow you are letting the team down. If you wait then you are too career orientated, immature and selfish.

Women cannot win!

But what can we do to change this?

We can rally together, to make childcare more affordable, to talk and let people coo and not deride them for wanting to do something natural or equally give them support when they don’t want to.

“I think of the many lives I have had and I am grateful for each one.”

Facebook asks me to take these ridiculous quizzes. Am I a pair of stilettos or a unicorn?

You know the ones; they are meant to be fun… Like personality quizzes a psychology dropout on pot (lots) would have put together.

I can say that I like potato chips over honey, but am I answering it because I now have low blood pressure and I crave salty food all the time?

On a lazy afternoon would you go hiking, hang with your friends, or lie around and do nothing? Well, now that I’m sequestered to bed in a dark quiet room on account of my “hot messness,” (intractable chronic migraine) how am I meant to answer?

I think of the many lives I have had and I am grateful for each one. Because I’m a woman, I know that every woman reading this has multiple lives. Many great-balancing women juggle all of their lives at once, but my lives are like a cat’s. Each one is unique and crazy with stripes and spots. While each life ends and another begins, my soul remains constant. Once I could tell the pothead quizmaster exactly which kind of fabulous shoe I prefer without my pain condition in my leg confusing my answer (fyi: wooden strappy wedge).

Do I answer a personality quiz without taking my ailments into consideration? But those things are just what I do, they are not who I am. I am not my illness and my illness is not supposed to define me, yet it’s really good at influencing just about every part of my life now. What about becoming a mom and how much your life changes when you have a baby? You are still you, but everything else in your life is now changed forever. And the truth is, my personality HAS changed in some ways because of these hardships…how could I not grow?

I’m still the person I was. I still love all the things I can’t do anymore: the hiking, the kayaking, wearing fabulous high heels (probably not simultaneously)…I don’t pine away 24/7, but when I’m faced with the specific question: Who are you? I do feel fractured.

Oh well… I’m fractured, I suppose. Oh, and I’m also a Dragon, apparently (thanks quizman). I wanted to be Fairy. Well, maybe in another life (wink).

A Body of Hope

 

“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.

It was as if my body, from the skin in, had been awakened.

Elle on bodybuilding

I ended up being a woman bodybuilder by accident: my husband (a runner) and I walked by a gym in Brooklyn, looked in, were curious, and went in. This was in the 1980s, when women had just begun going to gyms The manager offered me a year membership for $100. How could I resist?

Then, because he was bored at the time of day I went, he trained me. He’d won the Mr. USA contest at some point and he knew what he was doing. You can still find photos of him on the web: Joe Spooner.

The first thing that happened was that I felt parts of my body I’d never experienced before. For instance, the muscles between my ribs got sore. Who knew there were muscles there? It was as if my body, from the skin in, had been awakened.
But the coolest thing was that I woke up to my internal senses. You know, besides the senses that are turned outward, we have sense that are turned in, like balance, sense of time, direction, and temperature. Even the feeling of the difference between simple-pain and injury-pain seems like an internal sense. Do you know the feeling you have when your body is working perfectly, like everything is easy and maybe you’re weightless? You might feel it running or working out, but you might feel it dancing or just walking to the subway. I think that’s an internal sense, too.

The next result, besides fitness, was that I became conscious of another level of body experience and enjoyment. Really, when you think of it, sex is an internal body enjoyment. Appearance may help get you there, but it has nothing to do with what happens next.

Now I do yoga in a class and crossfit with my husband. Both make you feel your whole body, like bodybuilding.

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.

Carol Rossetti – WOMEN

This is one of the reasons I love facebook and can’t quite give it up because I come across amazing things like this from the various pages I follow. This is the amazing work by Carol Rossetti, so simple yet so powerful! I wanted to share on the blog because I felt it so fitting and something a lot of woman will relate to. Also the illustrations are just too KICK ASS not to share.

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Posted with permission. Please go to http://https://www.behance.net/carolrossetti to see more of her amazing work!