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Letter from Birzeit, #11: Facing Sexual Harassment

October 28, 2013
by Maya Rose Goldman Maya Rose Goldman is a third-year student at the University of Chicago, where she studies Human Rights, Anthropology, and Arabic. After a visit to Palestine in the Spring of 2012, she became passionate about understanding the situation in the Occupied Territories and the relationship between Israel and Palestine. In August, she returned to the West Bank to study at Birzeit University, from where she has been writing these letters. October 24 MISCONCEPTIONS AND MISUNDERSTANDINGS Last week, the New York Times published an article called “More American Jewish Students Take Up Study of the Arab World.” After reading it, I found that several of the points that were made relate directly to the experiences I’ve been having here. I’d like to share some of my reactions to the article. One paragraph particularly struck me, and I will repost it in its entirety here:
The same young people who contend that Americans have simplistic views of the Arab world say the problem is worse in the other direction: grinding poverty, lack of education and government-controlled news media often translate to cartoonish images of the United States and Israel. In Cairo, especially, women face daily sexual harassment, and for Western women, the problem is magnified by exaggerated assumptions about their sexual permissiveness.
I have found this sentiment to be very true here in Palestine. Not only are Americans, or “Westerners” in general, predominantly informed about the Arab world through media, but people in the Arab world — sometimes even those who have visited the United States — tend to base their perceptions of the U.S. on what they have seen in movies. Such misconceptions of American life can be as harmless as people assuming that I live in an extremely dangerous country in which everyone walks around with a gun in their pocket (side note: when there were gunshots on my street last month — no one was injured — my landlady said to me, “It’s just like Manhattan here!” I told her that I had lived in Manhattan for years, but that this was the first time I had heard gunshots) — and unfortunately, all of the recent and quite tragic school gun violence has only made this perception worse. Although such comments are commonplace, what I have experienced much more often is harassment solely due to the fact that I’m a “Western woman” — and this is something that almost every woman, if not every woman, in the program has faced. There are varying degrees of harassment, beginning with the stares on the street. I don’t mean the obvious, ”Look, a foreigner!” stares; no, I mean the stares that make me feel as if I am nothing more than a sexual object. I can feel the stares follow me even once I’ve walked past the ogling person or group. Some people will also heckle, both in Arabic and English, and it is becoming harder and harder to ignore these comments and continue forward without even a glance in their direction. Men — and let me emphasize that it is only men who stare; I have not once noticed a woman here staring at me, which makes it fairly evident that I am a spectacle not because I am a foreigner, but because I am a female foreigner from a Western country where women are presumed to be loose and easy — in cars will often slow down as they drive by me so they can make move at my walking pace and make comments to me directly before they drive off. One man even tried multiple times to convince me to get into the car with him — why he thought this tactic would work is beyond me. Like what you're reading?My roommates have been experiencing harassment, as well. One of my roommates used to go to a particular bakery near our apartment, and the first time she went, the young man working there spoke to her in Arabic about how people have sex in casinos in the United States. The next time she went, he said to her repeatedly, in English, “Do you like sex?” She was so offended and so infuriated that she stormed out and hasn’t returned since. When she mentioned these encounters to our landlady in casual conversation, our landlady’s facial expression immediately changed and she began to yell that such behavior is completely inappropriate and surely this boy is not from Birzeit, because Birzeit boys are well-behaved. She said, “I would have kicked his ass and then cut off his balls.” She told us that if this boy had spoken to a Palestinian woman this way, the police would have been called and he would have been arrested. She even called her brother to tell him what happened and encourage him to do something about it. This street harassment is fairly manageable, but it becomes much more difficult when the harassment is more explicit and direct. I would like to share two or three examples to illustrate what I mean by this, the first of which is a situation involving my other roommate. During our first week in Palestine, she met four young men who all work at the circus school in Birzeit and who also all live together in the same apartment. Since then, she has become good friends with all of them, and we have had several dinner parties at their apartment. She is closest with Nuur, with whom she occasionally does a language exchange (one hour of French, one hour of Arabic). Until last week, not one of these young men had flirted with her or made any advances, which is surprisingly unusual — it is almost impossible to find a male conversation partner who doesn’t try to get more out of the relationship, and finding male friends can be just as difficult. However, last week, just two days after my roommate and her boyfriend split up, one of Nuur’s roommates sent her a message asking her if she would be interested in having a sexual relationship with him now that she was single. My roommate was so hurt and upset. This was someone she thought she was genuinely friends with, but now she felt as though he had been viewing her as a potential sex partner since they met two months ago. He spoke to her not as a person with feelings — one of which was currently “heartbroken” — but as an object easily passed from one person to the next. It is events such as this that make it extremely difficult to trust men here while getting to know them; each one of us has had a supposed friend suddenly reveal his intentions, and it’s a very upsetting experience to feel so objectified and undervalued. I had to stop meeting with a male conversation partner last week after he spent an entire day hitting on me and trying to touch me, despite my clear discomfort and rejection of his advances — and my mention of my boyfriend had no effect on this man’s behavior, either. He was the best conversation partner I’d met with so far, so it was a disappointing loss and I was eager to meet someone else to work with. Thus, when a Birzeit student walked into the classroom where I was working between classes on Monday and asked me if I’d like to do a language exchange with him, I couldn’t say yes quickly enough. Rafat sat down next to me and we began to chat, and for the first few minutes, there were no obvious red flags. He mentioned that he had visited his brother in Kansas last year and really wanted to visit the U.S. again after graduating because “it’s so much better than Palestine.” After about ten minutes of harmless conversation, though, Rafat somehow found his way to the topic of sex. I will not go into all the details of the conversation here, because Rafat asked me a number of questions that were so crude and personal that I would have been uncomfortable even if they had been asked by a close friend that I hadn’t just met minutes before. He also made several offensive comments about my relationship, and he couldn’t understand why I didn’t have a second boyfriend in Palestine if my first boyfriend was all the way back in the United States — or why I didn’t think my boyfriend was seeing other girls while I was here. The more inappropriate comments he made, the angrier I became, but Rafat tried to reassure me by saying, “I’m just trying to learn more about American culture.” No matter how many times I told him that although many Palestinians seemed to think all American women are inherently “easy” or “loose,” but in reality everyone is different and there is no one American culture — and quickness to have sex is not the defining point of any culture — Rafat could not seem to understand or accept this. Instead, he responded with, “When I was in Kansas, I went to a club and I asked a girl if she wanted to come back to my place to smoke hookah and make sex, and she did.” His assumption was that all American women would have done the exact same thing. I didn’t hesitate to tell him that I probably would have slapped him in the face. After an hour of this, I finally told him I was done talking to him and I left the room. I was so infuriated, so hurt, and I had not felt so objectified and belittled in years. Whenever I express anger about this event or others like it, my friends and colleagues here tell me to just get used to it, “it’s the culture here.” But I refuse to accept that. How can it be Palestinian culture for men to assume all Western women will jump into bed with them if they just stare at them in a particular way (although this is what many American movies would suggest)? That can’t be culture, can it? It is easy to argue that because this is a fairly religious country, many younger or unmarried people likely feel repressed, but why do they feel it appropriate — or welcomed, for that matter — for them to release this repression on women from the United States or from European countries? I also like to see the best in people, but that approach has been strongly challenged here, where I feel forced to assume that all men are sex-obsessed jerks until I’m proven wrong. This is not a healthy way to interact with people, but I’m not sure how else to approach the situation. Somehow, in the two months I’ve been here, I can probably count on one hand the number of men I’ve met who have not made me uncomfortable but who have instead treated me as a real person to whom they are genuinely interested in talking — just as I am genuinely interested in talking to them. I’m sure many women have experienced similar frustrations in their travels and it is not confined to Palestine; if anyone has suggestions for how to handle some of these situations or navigate the sometimes intense sex discrimination, I would greatly welcome that. I would briefly like to change gears now and focus on another aspect of that recent NYT article, particularly the following line: “Many Jews avoid revealing their religious identity in the Middle East, believing that it would put them at greater risk.” Professors and acquaintances alike continuously reassure us that they have nothing against Jews, it is the Israelis — particularly the government — who have wronged them. However, this doesn’t change the fact that people here often use “Israelis” and “Jews” interchangeably, nor does it make me more comfortable speaking about my Jewish heritage with people I meet — and it comes up more often than one might expect, as I am often asked if I am Christian; it does not cross most peoples’ minds that I might possibly be Jewish. I know that telling people my family is Jewish would make them look at me differently, perhaps because they have negative feelings about Jews — perhaps without even realizing it — or perhaps because they think I’m studying Arabic because I’m Jewish, or perhaps for another reason entirely. I don’t think my decision to study Arabic was influenced by my cultural background, although I will never forget my slanted “history” lessons from Hebrew and Torah School, nor will I forget my mom’s insistence that Birthright was a brainwashing experience. I also am unable to forget a conversation I had in high school with a close friend who was Jewish and who, in 2009, could not have a conversation with me about Israel’s attack on Gaza further than “They deserve it.” This conversation had an incredible impact on me, and it was probably after that that my interest in Palestine and Israel really developed. So perhaps Judaism was involved in my decision to start studying Arabic in college because I had these specific experiences so rooted in my mind and informing my choices, but I don’t think it was initially about promoting greater understanding between peoples through communication. After I visited Palestine for the first time in 2012, though, that definitely changed — as did my relationship with Judaism. It was so hard for me to witness what was being done in the name of “protecting the Jewish people,” and possibly in the name of Judaism in general, especially because I knew that I didn’t agree with many of Israel’s policies and I knew that there were Jews around the world who felt the same way. I felt as though Israel had become the representative of Jewish opinion and Jewish life in many peoples’ minds, and I was so upset by that. I began to feel distanced from Judaism, even more so than I’d felt before my trip, perhaps because being Jewish had all of a sudden become incredibly complicated and I didn’t see where I fit in with it anymore. Some may view this as unfortunate or a loss, but I’m at peace with it. I still feel very connected to my childhood involving weekly trips to synagogue for Shabbat services and Torah School, and I am absolutely grateful for it. In all honesty, the only times I start to think about where I stand with Judaism today are when I visit Palestine and Israel — but even then, I tend to only think about it for a few days. Recently, though, I was pushed to consider my relationship with Judaism in a different context. Earlier this month, Lawrence Bush, the editor of Jewish Currents — which is described as a “progressive, secular Jewish magazine” — began to publish my blog posts on the “Blog-Shmog” section of the magazine’s website. I was initially very excited about this opportunity because it would allow me to enter into conversations with a wider audience — and likely an audience with a variety of perspectives to share. I also knew that some of these perspectives would probably be critical of my posts, although I am admittedly surprised at times by the extent of the criticism. However, there has also been some incredible support, and I appreciate the diversity of the reactions and of the Jewish Currents community. This is the closest I’ve been to being part of a Jewish community in several years, and I’m honestly not sure how I feel about that yet. There were times in high school when I felt I wasn’t “Jewish enough” to be part of certain crowds or conversations, and I hope that sensation doesn’t return as a result of my posts being on Jewish Currents. My aim is to be able to share my experiences without my words being read through a filter of “This is a Jewish person saying this.” This is not limited to Jewish Currents, though; in my daily life I tend to not bring up my Jewish background in conversations because I don’t want people to understand me differently or react in a certain way due to my Jewish heritage. I don’t think I’m writing from a Jewish perspective — my roommate, however, just told me she thinks the way I speak and act is very informed by Judaism — but rather from a desire to hear and share often passed-over stories. I am trying to remain open-minded, to remember that all parties involved here have made mistakes and have treated others inhumanely, and I hope readers know this about me and know that I don’t accept that one country is simply The Aggressor while the other is The Victim.