“Do you know that it would be strange for a woman to leave her house and return without hearing two or three strangers’ opinions about her chest, in all kinds of colorful language?” she asked in a blog post. “Can you imagine that it is routine for a big man to stand quietly by as a woman gets groped?”
Her post received a torrent of comments from women throughout the Middle East who complained that they, too, are tired of a common practice of Arab men that is usually just whispered about by women.
“We should confront society (about this) as much as we can,” said Thabet, 21, who has been campaigning online, on the street and on Egyptian television about the issue since her post. “We should talk and talk (about it), so everyone understands what the problem is.”
The wave of recent revolts for democratic changes in the Middle East and North Africa known as the Arab Spring has not led to more leadership roles for women, who have traditionally been sidelined politically in this part of the world.
However, the throwing over of old orders has inspired Arab women to try to change their old roles in society. That can’t happen until women can at least walk the streets without being grabbed by men whose behavior is seen as acceptable, they say.
“Women are struggling for basic rights, for nationality rights, to end domestic violence, against rape and sexual harassment,” said Farah Hobeissi of the Lebanese group Nasawiya (“feminism” in Arabic). “For us, it’s very clear that it’s not an easy battle. We are facing a patriarchal society that uses sex and religious men to hold us back.”
Hobeissi manages a campaign that includes TheAdventures of Salwa, a short series of cartoons about women who strike back against harassers. The aim is to encourage women not to remain passive in the face of such behavior.
Similar initiatives are popping up throughout the Arab world to provide support networks as women are often left to fend for themselves in public. A survey released in 2008 by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights reported that 83% of women and 98% of foreign women had experienced harassment.
After an attack last year on CBS News reporter Lara Logan in Cairo, female journalists working in the Arab world reported having put up with harassment from Arab men on the street that would be considered criminal sexual assault in the USA. In Egypt, women have created a website called HarassMap where they can report incidents and warn others of where they took place.
“Our goal is to inspire and support others to take actions,” co-founder Rebecca Chiao said. “We want to change the social tolerance for harassment.”
“This is a global problem, and we are working on a global response to it,” said Holly Kearl, founder of Stop Street Harassment.
In another campaign called Nefsi (Hope), women and men held up signs on the streets of Cairo, reading, “I hope that you will respect me so that I may respect you.”
Recently, women and men organized patrols of Tahrir Square— the center of last year’s revolution — where sexual assaults have been happening with impunity.
Activists say they face an uphill battle. Harassers are rarely punished, and when a woman objects, she is insulted and blamed for her appearance, Thabet says.
“It has nothing to do with clothes,” she said. “The men who are harassing do it to anyone they see.”
In Yemen, where most women are fully covered from head to toe, harassment can be just as likely as in Lebanon, where it is not unusual to see women wearing skin-revealing clothing. This has prompted initiatives in both countries, such as the Safe Streets Campaign in Yemen, which maps reports of harassment.
“As a woman in Yemen, harassment is almost a given on the streets and on public transportation. It doesn’t matter how you dress or behave — simply being a woman is reason enough to be targeted,” said Sara Ishaq, a Yemeni filmmaker.
Nawal Saadawi, an Egyptian feminist author once jailed for writings that include criticisms of Islamic customs regarding women, said the Arab Spring has handed women an opportunity.
“Women are taking part in all the revolutions because they want to change patriarchy, to change history and to change the whole system,” she said.
In May, a woman in Saudi Arabia challenged police who tried to throw her out of a shopping mall for wearing nail polish. “It’s none of your business,” she yelled in a confrontation filmed by camera phone and posted on YouTube. The video was viewed 1 million times in a few days.
By fighting back, women in the region hope that they not only can walk free from harassment but that such a change will usher in more rights and opportunities.
“I get sexually harassed because it’s an issue of power,” said Hobeissi of Nasawiya in Lebanon, “but women in leadership positions will transform how society perceives women in general.”