Summer in the City

PUBLISHED March 20, 2013

“She’s seventeen!” Shouted my boisterous friend Brittany. The recipient of her aggression: A man, greying around the temples, spine nearly folded in half, and thick, cheap tobacco smoke trailing from his mouth.

The comment that ignited her aggression? Some variation of: “Hey baby!” “Damn, sweetie!” “Bring that ass over here!” “Aren’t you a pretty little thing?” Or, “My, my, my.” Comments that, particularly at seventeen, made me feel like a frosted bake good posed in the window display of a cheap, dusty diner.

When summer strikes the East Coast, young women be weary. The more skin you show, the more catcalls come your way. You are inviting, don’t you know, “his” one-sided stamp of approval. Your presence in public means you are fit to be judged. Summer on the East Coast requires a delicate balance. Men in the city take their posts leaning against buildings, shops, and bus stops, making the sidewalk our unwilling runway. Reveal, young lady, what you’ve been hiding all winter.  Like cheap jewelry worn too long, “his” comments leave stains on our skin. They serve as a reminder: You do not belong to yourself.

In Philadelphia, it hasn’t stretched much farther beyond 40 degrees. I have a few months until I am coaxed from my sweaters by the warmth of spring and must again become overly aware of my own body. My attention is drawn, while pouring a mug of coffee, to Egypt. Morning Edition dictates the start of my day. I hear: Men’s hands are in her pants and under her shirt. But no one hears her screaming…Girls like this are raped in front of everyone.  Suddenly, I cannot swallow. Heba Morayef is speaking: There’s a general climate of impunity when it comes to sexual violence. And then, activist Aida Kashef: It is increasing day by day, not just what’s happening in Tahir, but all over Egypt. It’s becoming more violent. And it’s not about where you are or what time it is, who you are with, what you are wearing. It happens to every woman.But what sticks with me most are the comments of 58-year-old Samira Abdel Samee: Rape is wrong…but the woman should be honorable and respectable and good…a man will never touch an honorable woman. 

A man will never touch and honorable woman. I negotiate the sentence in my head. A man will never touch an honorable woman.

Now, why does this sentence sound so familiar? Where have I heard something like that before? Oh…right! Those good ‘ol, well-mannered and decently educated college boys I have the pleasure of attending university with. Suddenly, I am no longer in Egypt. I’m in a damp basement. Glazed eyes scour female attire. They find the shortest skirt, the lowest neckline. The comments sputter forth like the beer in the keg: Asinine attempts at wooing a girl to bed. I shake my head. I’ve outgrown fraternity parties. But I’ve been on the peripheral of many a conversation including the phrase, “She was dressed like a slut. She was asking for it.” Or, “Girls dress the way they do because they want guys to say something to them.”

Where did they learn this? I missed the episode of Sesame Street where (come on, kids!) ‘C’ stood for Cup, Car and Catcall. I can imagine Big Bird sitting in his nest, ticking through the examples when Rosie walks by… “Now kids, Catcall means you find a girl attractive or simply existing in the same space as you and deserving of an insulting comment about her body and you shout that comment at her in an aggressive manner to remind her that her body is an object to be judged by us men. Let’s all try together on the count of three…”

The “Bermuda Triangle,” is the term used to describe the area of Tahir Square where women are sucked into turbulent violence and reappear sometimes hours later, beaten and bruised. Ghazala Irshad is a journalist currently pursuing her Master’s at the American University in Cairo. “Mob and sexual assaults occur so often outside the doors of the Hardees in Tahir Square,” she writes, “that the fast food restaurant has become a makeshift safe house for women: employees are well-practiced emergency aid providers. However, young trainee Mohamed doesn’t have much sympathy to offer. ‘They were wearing provocative clothes,’ he says.”

In 2010, a Population Council survey showed that almost 80% of males and 73% of females between the ages of 15 and 29 believed women deserved to be harassed based on their clothing. Unsupported, then, are the 72% of harassed women who have been veiled.

In Egypt, the severity of sexual assault eclipses catcalling. To ring in the second anniversary of Egypt’s uprising, there were at least 19 documented cases of assault against women. “Sometimes, the girl herself is fully responsible for rape,” offers Egyptian lawmaker Adel Afify,  “because she puts herself in the situation.” I wonder if I too am putting myself in “The Situation” when I slip on my jean shorts, tank top and walk to the corner store for milk. Or, if I’m putting myself in “The Situation” when I pair the glitzy mini-dress I found thrifting with four-inch heels. Or, if I’m putting myself in “The Situation” by leaving my home and being a woman at the same time. Something is striking to me about the latter. I think I’ve hit it.

I am by no means equating the sexual assaults suffered by the women in Egypt with the transient and passing nature of a catcall. These women are being beaten with clubs and steel bars, shocked by electrical rods, and hit so hard the bones in their faces crumple. Unlike Yasmine Al-Baramawy, I have never been assaulted by a gang of men for the better portion of an hour, dragged through the streets having my shirt torn from my body and my pants cut from my legs. But I am not so naïve as to think that the sound of my heels striking United States’ sidewalks means I’m safe from abuse.

A catcall is not a compliment. Walking down the street I dread and then cringe at the feeling of a neck swiveling as I pass. The hair on the back of my neck stands on end as if his ogling gaze has transformed into little fingers, appraising my body for its worth. The comments come after you’ve passed; you are not meant to respond, but swallow the forced and definitive opinion.  Compliments do not tie your stomach in such knots. These brief instances have become more sickening knowing the abuses of women in Egypt. My blood boils because though these men are not (yet) laying hands on me, they are sharing sentiments, if even slight, with the men in Tahir.


Content text