Sexual harassment: A barrier to women’s movement and freedom

National Yemen

By Asma Al-mohattwari

In Yemen’s highly conservative society, religious and social values are in many ways highly regarded, while cultural norms tend to regulate interactions between men and women. Yet when describing their daily realities, many Yemeni women describe being exposed to behaviors which are far from what religious or traditional morals call for.

Yemeni males, and especially male youths, often feel compelled to ‘flirt’ with women. This usually takes the form of one-sided, unsolicited and/or disrespectful types of behavior – harassment.

Not far back in Yemen’s past, Yemeni women would almost certainly encounter rigid social barriers when attempting to pursue studies, employment, or even go shopping alone and without the public ‘guardianship’ of her father, brother or any other male relative.

Nowadays, as Yemeni women have begun to traverse such barriers, a new form of suffering has materialized in the form of constant, unavoidable harassment.

Sana’a resident Mohammed Ismail said that Yemeni youths grow up in a society which separates men and women from an early age. Society gives men certain power, leave men socially dominant.

“There isn’t a real understanding that woman is equal to man, and that he should respect her and stop looking at her as a body and nothing more,” he said.

It’s clear that harassment on Yemeni streets – not to mention in schools and at parks and workplaces – is incompatible with Yemeni values and customs.

University student Amani Houssin said that girls suffer a great deal as a result of harassment on university grounds and in buses. “There are things which are much worse than cat calls…some attempt to touch your hands or other parts of your body,” she said.

Men asked about their actions said that the women whom they are harassing are in some way attracting the attention.

“Women invite us to flirt with them – from how they wear their clothes and walk and talk, they give us the sense that they want to attract our attention. If they dressed appropriately, no one would talk to them,” Najm Al-Saidi said.

Refuting Al-Saidi, Maha Mohammed said that even a woman wearing an ‘abaya’ and ‘niqab’ – with the result that her body is entirely concealed – is harassed.

“Their excuse is stupid, because if they applied what our God said and lowered their gaze, everything would be fine,” she said.

A study conducted by social researcher Rana Ghanem stated that most women who are subjected to harassment are workers and students, who thereby have more contact with men in the public sphere.

Basic factors lie behind the apparent spread in the harassment phenomenon. One of the most significant causes is unemployment; with long vacuous hours without a job or productive activity, male youths can be more prone to indulge in such actions.

Dr. Mounira Mohammed said that poverty and unemployment factor into frustration and repression, which can translate into inappropriate behaviors and a way to unload unused energy.

In an Islamic country such as Yemen, it is believed by many that strong faith and an adherence to the Holy Quran will lead to good behaviors.

Teacher Najla Ali said that when young people drift away from God and the Holy Quran, they forget all about religious deterrents and start doing what isn’t acceptable in Islam.

The prospect of harassment has caused some parents to prevent their daughters from walking alone in the streets.

Zeinab Ahmed said that once when she was walking to her house, a man who had been following behind proceeded to bother her. Zeinab’s father saw what was happening and from then on didn’t allow her to go anywhere alone.

“Before, traditions kept us at home… and now those stupid men in the streets prevent us from going out. So what exactly is our fault, and what should we do?” asked Zeinab sadly.