[This article was published in Persian on Radio Zamaneh, Feb 2016 https://www.radiozamaneh.com/264440]
I bet that every single woman reading this piece, and I’m sure some men as well, have plenty of moments where they felt sexually intimidated, humiliated or harassed. Ms. Sheena Shirani, former TV anchor at Press TV, is one of them and she shared her personal experiences of the harassment that took place for years in her work place.
Considering the context in which Shirani has come out with her story shows incredible bravery. Being sexually harassed is a traumatic experience and talking about it is extremely difficult for any person, but especially when living in a society where all things mildly sex related are taboo and where women are treated second-class citizens. It saddens me greatly that Shirani had to undergo these horrors for years and that only after leaving her country she felt able to address these offenses.
The massive assaults in Germany of New Years Eve, where over 500 reports came in of which 40% were of a sexual nature, illustrate that also in Western-European cities and elsewhere in the world this issue still needs a place on the agenda. A massive amount of women who were out on the streets of Cologne and other German cities that night reported to have been sexually assaulted. Outraged by what had happened, men and women all over Europe took to the streets to protest against sexual harassment. In Amsterdam young men defied the winter cold wearing mini-skirts in solidarity with women, who should be able to wear what they want without having to fear for their safety or dignity. An act now still unimaginable for Iran, but nonetheless an act needed to continue the fight for equal rights and treatment, also here in the West. It shows that even in what is considered one of the most progressive and open societies, this issue is still in need of attention.
With the influx of refugees however, Europe is dealing with a crisis that unfortunately is feeding the sharp debate of foreign, and especially Muslim immigrants with a very strong opposing camp leading to all sorts of frightening and aggressive responses from local citizens. News reports of the attacks in Cologne quickly mentioned that the perpetrators are assumed to be refugees, which later had been corrected. Within this context of the refugee crisis, a misconception in Western thinking is growing where many assume sexual harassment to be the norm in Muslim countries and especially in the Middle East, and to be an exception in the West. Truth is, sexual harassment and intimidation is everywhere and takes many different forms. It is in our schools, on the streets, it happens offline and online, in clubs and bars, and in our offices.
A social media campaign #PrimeiroAssedio (first harassment) in Brazil caught my eye. In response to online sexism aimed towards child contestants of the Brazilian television show MasterChef Junior, a group of bloggers was able to collect over 82,000 micro-stories on Twitter about women’s first experience with sexual harassment. A shocking analysis shows that among all these Brazilian women the average age of their first encounter with sexual harassment is only 9,7 years old. I found reading these short stories incredibly saddening, but it was also refreshing to see the openness with which women shared and to notice the wide range of experiences. It also forced me to go back to my own experiences as a girl. I remember my “Primeiro Assedio” as if it were yesterday, up to the details of what I was wearing that day, and I can recall many more moments where I have felt uncomfortable, pressured, intimidated, scared and even harassed in a sexual way.
Regarding the important issue of sexual harassment in the work place brought to light by brave Shirani and Zamaneh’s call for stories, let me share with you one thing. My worst encounter with sexual harassment was not with a foreigner, not a Muslim man, not the typical single, macho guy. No, it was an ordinary family man and also took place in a work setting. I was in my early 20s, in college and doing an internship. He was in his 40s and my boss.
What I have learned from these experiences and the #PrimeiroAssedio stories is that there are many different forms of sexual harassment. I feel like this is often misunderstood by men and not taught by our parents, in our schools or openly discussed. We must remember that sexual harassment is not necessarily equal to rape. Any unwanted sexual behavior and pressure whether this is verbal or physical is harassment and needs to be addressed, prevented and stopped.
Like Shirani there are so many other women (and men) experiencing the same kind of behavior. While our stories are very different, I too experienced sexual harassment and bullying. There is one significant difference between Shirani and myself though: I was able to get help. I was able to make use of the system we have in place. I was able to speak out without being outcaste. I received support from both the company I worked for and my academic institute. I did not have to accept the bullying for years in order to save my career. I did not have to leave my country. In fact, I live in a country where young men now protest on the streets wearing mini-skirts in support of women’s freedom and women’s rights.
Being a victim of any kind of sexual harassment is an extremely isolated place to be in. I truly hope that all over the world, but especially in closed societies such as Iran, we will see more transparency and support for this problem. Seeing Iranian men in mini-skirts walking the streets of Tehran chanting for women’s rights would be a dream come true.