I’ve been thinking a lot lately.
I’ve been thinking about what I wrote about Iran. The aftermath of the feeling this country left me with; the generic, creeping unease, the constant discomfort that grew bigger and bigger on me, the way one small sexist remark, after a while, had the power to ruin my day. Not because the comment was necessarily super rude or intimidating, but just because it was one too many. Because having to deal with tiny insults and minor inconveniences every single day became tiring, and a burden.
I’ve been thinking about it because I never endured that feeling so strongly in my life. It was a new, very unsettling experience. I’ve been also thinking about it, because many of you have given very strong reactions to my story.
Most of you were very upset about the man who started masturbating but, to be quite fair, I don’t feel like that was the most disturbing part of the story. It was one occurrence, and while it was surely not pleasant, I think many women can share similar stories that happened to them in other parts of the world. I sure can. When it comes to that matter, Belgium is no exception: there’ve been cat-calls, indecent conversations and worse in my own country too. What made Iran different, was the vast scale of the incidents. The daily occurrence of it. That’s what hit me hard. And that’s what’s been lingering in my mind.
In Iran, I was a woman standing out. I stood out because of my skin colour, my outfit, and my behaviour. I was a woman on my own, far from home. Clearly, most Iranian girls wouldn’t do that. That’s my perception, at least. In the minds of many Iranian people, the mere fact that I walked on the street the way I look and dress and am, created an (incorrect) connotation. Perhaps they despised me for being too bold or impure. Perhaps they interpreted the way I am as an open invitation for anything sexual. Perhaps they simply assumed that’s what all Western women are like… After all, why else would we parade ourselves on the streets like that: vulnerable, alone and only half adapted to the dress code? The best of people just frowned, puzzled. They might not judge, but they didn’t quite understand either.
I’ve been thinking about this because I am quite sure there are many girls in Belgium who experience the same feeling of unease, stares and discomfort when they walk on the streets. Women who are really just being themselves, but none the less are subject to a lot of inappropriate comments. Women who are treated differently, who have to endure frowns, insults, or worse.
I’m sure many females in Europe, who choose to wear the hijab, walk around the streets feeling vulnerable and unaccepted. Because without knowing who they are, or even speaking to them, many in our society assume things about them. Things that might not be true. We assume what these Muslim women are like because after all, why else would they parade themselves on the street like that: speaking Arabic, wearing long dresses, hiding under a hijab? Even the best of us frown, puzzled. We might not judge, but we might not understand either.
I am convinced many Muslim women in Europe – and men too, for that matter – swallow their daily dose of harassment. It might not be sexual, but racist or Islamophobic harassment is just as bad. I’m sure many of them endure consistent stares, negative treatment, harsh comments, insults, shout-outs,… Being called a terrorist for being a Muslim is just as painful and frustrating as it is to be called a whore for being a women. Being ignored in a conversation because of your skin colour is just as sad as being ignored because of your gender.
We’d say that if those Muslim women want to feel more comfortable and accepted, they should drop the scarf and their ditch their religious attire. They should look and act like us, go to the pub, have a beer. But can we take a break for a second?
No woman, no man, should ever, under no circumstances, have to feel so stared at. So judged. So mistreated. Regardless of what they wear or what they choose to eat, how they choose to live. There is a basic respect that we should grant to everyone who is living their lives peacefully. I did not deserve all that harassment just because I was walking around on my own, and surely no Muslim deserves such harassment for walking around with a hijab either.
I am writing this because I am perhaps a bit unhappy with some of the reactions I got on my post. I didn’t share that experience because I wanted to condemn the Iranian culture. I didn’t write it because I wanted to make a statement that Iran is a country sans respect, decent men and feminism. Nothing could be further from the truth. And while my post was harsh and my experiences unpleasant, it hurts me that many use it as a single handed argument to dismiss all the good in the country.
My point is that we should be mindful about the things we judge. We should be mindful not to feel unfairly superior. Because when you strip the unnecessary and the details, you’ll often find that we are all the same. We all mistreat others in our societies. We all judge and misjudge. We all stare, discriminate, isolate and assume. We might do it for different reasons, from different perspectives, in different ways. But it is the same injustice.
It is easy to criticize the way others view the world. It is easy to judge their morals and standards. It is easy to disagree about things and I’m sure that sometimes we should. In order for respect, feminism, equal rights etc. etc. to grow further, there has to be a discussion. There have to be truths questioned. But in this strive and struggle, what we should never forget is to look in the mirror. You can condemn the actions of an individual. You can condemn a tradition, a behaviour, and action, a vice. Please, by all means, condemn the people who harass and assault women, who shout at them or grope them in the streets. But don’t forget to look further. Don’t forget to look at the roots, the underlying feelings that sprouted such vices. And don’t forget that these roots spread under the same earth that your own feet walk upon. Don’t forget we are all prone to the same weakness.
When the outrage about one form of injustice can be an incentive to be more mindful about another, when our dismay about one culture’s behaviour can be a trigger to question our own, perhaps then we can use them to make our world better, not bitter.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately.
And I hope it might be contagious.