Street Harassment

Yesterday, a friend's facebook status alerted me that March 20th was the first International Anti-street Harassment day. I found out too late to do anything about it just then, but today I have three street harassment stories to share.

I do this with some trepidation because:
1. I have to walk the line of calling out harassment while plainly stating that this problem isn't a Lebanese thing--it's an international, human, thing.
2. For me, there's always going to be the tension of being a foreigner here and knowing that I have an outsider's view and an outsider's experience. I know this impacts how I'm treated and how people respond to me, so just take that for what it is.
3. My blog isn't usually this personal or this wordy. Sheesh. 

March 20th was all about sexual harassment, but I've chosen three stories that highlight a variety harassing situations that happened to me or that I saw happen to someone else. I've included a collage of pictures that I took near the places where these things happened. Since photography is what I do, I already had photos of these places.

Top Left
It was 11:30, nearly mid-day. I was on my way to pick up my daughter from school. There was a jittery looking fellow ahead of me, pacing. He was probably in his early 20s, a tight-jeans, greased-hair kind of guy. As I walked past him, he slapped my butt. Without even thinking about it I wheeled around and screamed at him. He was a little more than arm’s reach away when I yelled, and it startled him. It startled the drivers on the road and traffic halted. Since I’d acted without thinking and now found myself confronting this guy I decided to do the thing properly. I began shouting again. I had about two syllables out when he took off running to get away from me.

I continued on my way, feeling extremely angry. One of the cars in the road, part of the traffic I stopped with my outburst, pulled over ahead of me. A very clean-cut guy got out, a polo shirt and trainers kind of guy. He asked if I was ok, said that the guy who slapped me isn’t educated and that not all Lebanese are like this. I think I understand why he stopped, what he assumed I was thinking, why he felt compelled to get out of his car to tell me all this. He had no way of knowing that I’ve lived here for the better part of five years, that I KNOW that not all Lebanese are like that.

Top Right
I was walking with my children. A whole group of those guys who sell flowers on the street were seated together ahead of us. Maybe they were taking a break. As we passed them one of them got up and began following us, right next to me, trying to get me to buy a flower. I said no. This had no impact on him. I said it again, but he continued. It’ll matter to some who read this for me to include here that when I say no I do the chin-lifting eyebrow-raising gesture that is the Lebanese equivalent of shaking your head. It’s a clear, international no. After doing this twice I stopped, made eye contact, and yelled no. He backed off right away, but I could tell he thought I’d wildly over-reacted. I spent the rest of my walk worried about this situation. It was a bad feeling.

I was walking to my kids’ school along a wide and busy street, lost in my own thoughts. Ahead of me on the other side of the road, I heard laughing, and then a scuffle broke out. Two middle-aged guys were laughing as a third, their buddy I’m sure, knocked a shoe-shine kid’s kit out of his hands—these kits include all their stuff (creams, rags, brushes, etc.) to do their job. I’ve called the shoe-shine a kid because his build was slight, his face looked really young—maybe 16. The guy shoving him toward traffic must have outweighed him by at least 40 lbs. Every bit of that circumstance made me angry. The older guy was clearly middle class and he was surrounded by friends. He was pushing around a younger smaller person who was alone, pushing him toward traffic, messing with the only tools the kid had to make a living. So, from the other side of the street I yelled at him to stop it. He either couldn’t hear me because of traffic or didn’t care that I was shouting, but other people heard me and they began to intervene. I stood there until more people were involved, until I could see that whatever was happening between them would be solved without the kind of bullying that made me shout in the first place.

So much for my three stories. In the end, all I can say is that circumstances like these are always on my mind a little when I'm out on the street. Someday I'll yell at someone who isn't a coward, or I'll yell and none of the passers-by will care. I'm really thankful for the people who helped in circumstances where I've felt threatened or I've seen someone else threatened.

If you'd like, leave a comment about your own street harassment experiences, what you've done about it, how you respond, or what you think of what I've shared.


  1. Oh dear - I hope this didn't happen all in one day. Maybe I've lived a sheltered life but I must say that I haven't encountered too much harassment, most people are pretty well mannered here apart from the odd builder's cat-calls...

  2. Goodness, no. But they're all recent. They took place basically in this order between Oct '10 and Jan '11.

  3. Life in Rexburg, Idaho is definitely different. I think it's great that you stood up for the little shoe-shiner.

  4. The first day I got to Beirut a shoe shine guy gave me a really hard time, he wouldn't take no for an answer. Finally an older gentleman in a suit yelled at him in Arab, and he scuttled off. The older guy in the suit did the same thing you had happen, he told me not all Lebanese were like that...

    As for sexual harassment, I'm ashamed to be male when I here stories like this.

  5. I feel so fortunate when I hear about these things. I imagine that if I walked much in some of the areas of downtown Los Angeles, I'd have some similar experiences, but here in the suburbs we are very lucky.

  6. i have never experienced harassment so have no story to tell ... i admire your willingness to yell ... I think I would just freeze.

  7. I spent 10 days in Beirut/Byblos last summer. The first 3 days I was with friends I had no issues. They left for Damascus and I stayed behind - that's when the harassment started. As a black woman alone all the men thought I was a prostitute! I yelled, shook my head "no" and ignored them for the most part.

  8. Sarah, Pam, Joan, I'm so glad to read that this isn't an issue where you are. Suburban life is different, I suppose.

    Owen, it makes me really happy to remember that when I yelled men were the ones who helped. That says a lot.

    Olga, I'm so sorry to hear that. I've also noticed that I'm far more likely to be harassed if I'm alone. It's too bad, because I take my best photos when I'm on my own, when I don't have to worry about slowing down the group or taking friends off-course to look for a better angle.

  9. I really admire your brave and firm stand.

    I can't remember any bad things happening to me on the street, but then, maybe it helps not to be young and pretty.

    Well, in the 1970s I lived nearer to the coast; we had no car for a time so I had a small Honda 50 motorcycle instead. Once lots of traffic was stopped for a red light at a major junction, and from the bus next to me some school boys started shouting "Sharmouta!" It was embarrassing. I guess back then it was rare to see a female on a motorcycle.

    Take care of yourself, Mary Ann.

  10. Oh, yes. These days, I get called "Russian" sometimes, which is the same thing, apparently.

    I think it's cool that you know how to ride. More power to you, Dina.

  11. "Russian"? Tsk tsk, that's new to me.

    Maybe we should learn to answer back with what we call a "Middle Eastern [hand] gesture." hehe

  12. I wish I knew. Over the years I've improvised various reactions. I've learned that it really rattles people if I stare at them mercilessly once they've gotten my attention in this way. I sense in their behavior that they didn't see this coming and that it is unpleasant for them. Since being called names is unpleasant for me, I think it's fair.

    I've often wondered about the best reply--sometimes no reply is best, which is what I do most of the time.

  13. You seem to be up to the challenge.