It was a glorious morning: the weather hot and summery and smelling of vacations and road trips, I am on my way to pick up some ordered books, the streets are as empty and inviting and friendly as they get on those early-morning Friday rides, the thought of the L.E.100-reduction I am getting on the purchase for my loyalty card award points is making me ecstatic; life is sweet.
As I approached the bookstore I noticed the Central Security Forces (CSF) trucks parked by it (at least six of them), almost blocking its entry. Now, generally, the sight of these trucks doesn’t cause as strong an alarm in me as I imagine it should – growing up in a police state will do that to you I guess – and, after all, we are a country in a revolution; however, the sight will always eat away from similar states of elation, a bitter bite of reality into my early-Friday cotton-candy euphoria.
The CSF trucks are stationed there lining the sidewalk ready for any eventual need for deployment at the nearby offices of the Presidential Elections Commission where presidential hopefuls register their candidacy, and that usually sees rallies by the supporters of the latter. Slowing down to find a parking space already garnered me the intrusive gazes of their uniformed occupants that followed me into the side street where I parked.
I was on the phone with my sister arranging errands she needed me to run with her afterwards as I pulled into the street, I was immediately aware of the “attention” I got, the kind of awareness that sends a disquieting tingling down your spine, the gazes of the oglers piercing away through the happy balloons of my cheerful mood. Attempting to hold on to the strings of it, I tried hard to block it out. The phone conversation was over by the time I was done parking, yet, as I was getting out of the car, I found myself asking my sister not to hang up and to keep at a sham conversation while I walk in front of the masses of parked CSF personnel.
And so I made my way on the sidewalk to the bookstore entrance, flanked by the building wall and the wall of lined trucks with their uniformed gazing occupants. I walked tall (well, as tall as a short person can walk), head raised, chin high, shoulders back, giving off an air of unshakable confidence and indifference to my surroundings, pretending to be completely immersed in the bogus conversation I was having with my sister, speaking a bit louder than I usually would on the street to enforce my self-assuredness and to drown the ripples of murmurs and comments I seemed to cause walking past each of the trucks. I pretended to be completely oblivious to the piercing invasive hungry gazes and, in this instance, toned down, catcalls, and I made a point of throwing a couple of haughty glances toward the trucks as I talked just to make sure the men inside got the message: if I weren’t as oblivious to your harassment as I am pretending to be right now I would be giving you hell, you better believe it.
I come from a culture that generally espouses ignoring as the best answer to street harassment, “Just ignore him dear”, my mother would say. However, by the time I finished high-school, I had learned to stare back right into their eyes, to verbally chastise them into looking away or stopping the catcalling. There is vindication in taking away from a sexual harasser his sense of invincibility and control, in the almost emasculating effect of not being intimidated by him; it comes at some cost of course: one, because in order to confront a harasser, any defense mechanism that would usually allow you to cope with an uncomfortable experience is dropped – you very consciously and fully acknowledge the ugly fact of being sexually harassed and violated, and two, because any confrontation just takes energy. And I think, with time, that almost subconscious, instinctive calculation of weighing the trouble of confrontation against the trouble of enduring the harassment before reacting becomes hardwired into every woman.
Generally, when out on the street, I am mostly fearless, I just feel invincible and safe, and by fearless I mean willing to face, indifferent, oblivious to, ignorant of, or blocking out any risks inherent to one’s behavior or environment, or a combination of all of the above, for whatever motives or by whatever mechanisms. It’s the only way to go really, else many wonderful opportunities for experience are crippled or lost, including the experience of being out on the street in the first place (which isn’t always wonderful).
But Friday morning I didn’t want to walk by a line of CSF truckfuls of ogling men without the protective shield of a pretend conversation and feinted indifference or oblivion. I can’t say for certain that I wasn’t at all intimidated by their sheer numbers, or by the fact that they were state security personnel; I can’t say for certain that, walking walled in like that between the trucks and the wall in the quiet of a Friday morning, gang rape did not at all present itself to some level of my consciousness as a very reasonably possible risk. I know that I desperately didn’t want anything to darken my bright mood or ruin the glorious day, I know that I sincerely wished I could truly not feel the gazes and catcalls, I know that I wished I could be freely smiling at the sun as I walked towards the bookstore entrance, and I know that I chose the trouble of enduring the harassment over the trouble of confrontation. And I felt defeated.