I had an afternoon class today and decided to make an effort, which loosely translated into smoothing out my hair and colouring my lips with a splash of bright pink. Happy with my look, I walked out into the reception area of the student housing main building. Here, I noticed three Filipino men sitting on the seats across reception. They seemed innocuous; they were texting and talking to each other.
As I walked by, I saw the man in the middle nudge his friends, who immediately looked at me. They started smiling, their eyes clearly roving up and down down on my person. While this was clearly ogling, it didn’t bother me as much as what I did next.
Knowing these men were smiling and staring, I slipped on a stern expression, kept my head down, ignored them and walked out the door. For heaven’s sake, WHY did I do that? In my head I heard my mother and grandmother’s words, “Let them look. Why increase it by paying attention to them? Keep your head down and pretend nothing happened.”
While that approach may help women avoid unnecessary trouble, it doesn’t do much to change the rhetoric. If I still lived at home in Pakistan, I would excuse my response because if a girl acknowledges or responds to teasing, things get worse. There is danger of being mugged, physically harassed and raped, among other things and also, the police force doesn’t back you up. In that society, it’s practical to keep your head down and say nothing; I mean why risk being raped over pretending to ignore a few verbal comments?
I live in Qatar now, and it is a world apart from Pakistan. This is a country where the law is properly enforced and there are severe consequences for any sort of lewd behaviour. I should adopt a different rhetoric. Contrary to the typical Middle Eastern impression where Westerners often regard women as being oppressed, this country gives its female citizens significant autonomy. The fact that a woman can speak up against harassment is such a powerful privilege that I’m astounded more people haven’t noticed.
Yes, all of us would love to talk about how these privileges shouldn’t be necessary; women shouldn’t need to tell off men from teasing/staring/ogling, but these are unfortunate realities.
I should have gone up to those men, asked them what their problem was and also threatened to call security just to wipe off their self satisfied smiles (you see, they knew I wouldn’t do anything!). Especially because I live in a country that gives me the resources I need to assert my power as a woman who should be respected. It’s ironic that my own “democratic” country forced me into a boxed approach to dealing with harassment and an Arab country deemed ‘backward’ by some, allows me to break free of it; Qatar has a soft spot for the women in it.
Women have a place of unmatched respect in this country; it would be good if they and the world learn to recognize it.
*Disclaimer: These are views based on my personal experiences. Other women in Qatar might or might not have these opinions!