Really, You Can Stop Staring Now: Street Harassment in Kurdistan

Today I received a legitimate honk from a passing car while walking to work in the morning. I hadn’t looked both ways before crossing the street and was therefore in danger of being run over. So, the driver honked his horn, I scurried across the street, and we both went our ways. “Thanks driver, I deserved that and next time I’ll look up from my iPod before crossing the street” was my first thought. The next thought was, “that was the first honk directed towards me for a legitimate reason since I’ve been here”. When I say ‘legitimate reason’, I mean other than as one form of harassment or another. Every other time someone a man has honked at me, they were harassing me. I don’t care if a honk is supposedly a way to say hello – when you’re honking and hollering ‘hey baby what’s your name’ out the window, that’s harassment. In any case, it’s really not a good sign when you start to think “oh, that was a legitimate honk versus a sexually harassing one”.


Image via Lawsonry

Street harassment is defined by the organization Stop Street Harassment as:

Unwelcome words and actions by unknown persons in public which are motivated by gender and invade a person’s physical and emotional space in a disrespectful, creepy, startling, scary, or insulting way.

What street harassment is not:

  • Harmless flirting
  • Appreciative looks, comments, compliments
  • Slightly uncomfortable, overlong staring that is ultimately harmless
  • Deserved by women because they were wearing provocative clothing

Instead, street harassment is:

  • A violation of my right as a person to safe public space
  • A super-insiduous form of sexism
  • Treatment of women as sexual objects
  • The continued subordination of women and LGBTQ folk
  • Intimidation on the part of the male perpetrator, and an attempt to reinforce male hegemony and patriarchy

I don’t think all men are sleazebags just waiting to yell a rude comment as I pass by, and I know a lot of great men who are active allies and work against street harassment. However, in response to another male friend’s comment that all he wants to do is make new friends but he finds it difficult to approach women because of male distrust, I’d like to share this article: Schrödinger’s Rapist, or a Guy’s Guide to Approaching Strange Women Without Being Maced. Please read it, as it is much more eloquently stated than anything I would write, and it also perfectly explains why women are so distrustful of strange men.

As for street harassment here in Kurdistan, it’s almost always from a distance – either stares or hollering as men drive by in their cars. When I’m walking in the bazaar, I rarely ever get verbal abuse, and never any physical contact (unlike places like London where men can get grabby – really, that’s supposed to make me all fluttery and melt inside?). But being followed by men in their cars as they holler various things, mostly in Kurdish but also spewing every English word they know, most of which consists of “hey baby, hello, what’s your name, where are you going”, is not pleasant either. JUST LEAVE ME THE EFF ALONE AND GO YOUR OWN WAY. I often wish I could say this, but while I do feel physically safer here than in Boston or London because I know the chances of anything happening are slim to none, it’s still a place where I don’t really speak the language, and wouldn’t know what to do if anything did happen. Or if I said anything in response. If someone was harassing me in Boston, I’d call the police and call for help from passer-bys. Here, don’t know the number for the police, and even if I did, what am I going to say? So instead, I silently fume. Every time I’m out and about by myself. EVERY TIME.

It’s also frustrating when I get the impression from other people that I’m being dramatic and over exaggerating. “Oh, they’re only staring at you because you’re a foreigner and you look different.” I think I can distinguish when someone is staring out of curiosity, and when it’s something more discomfiting. “It’s really not that big of a deal.” “Really?? I don’t experience that at all!” THAT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE A MAN. It’s true, I don’t get as many hollers and honks when I’m walking with a man, so I suppose it’s harder to comprehend. But really, is it?

On good days, it’s just slightly annoying and I can brush it off. On bad days, it ruins my day. But it’s not something that’s exclusive to Kurdistan, not by any means. A comparison of the (scant) research conducted on street harassment around the world shows the U.S. to lead in terms of percentage of women who have experienced street harassment.

Graph via Stop Street Harassment

Great, America, just great. And we say we’re a ‘civilized’ nation with equal rights for all, and loooove to preach it around the world. At least the police may or may not be of help there. In any case, looking forward to being back in a place where, if when harassed, I can either choose to ignore it, say something, or call the police. In the meantime, being zen in the face of hollering and staring seems to be the way to go. And really, you can stop staring now.


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