Sexual harassment deters women from outdoor activities [Archives:2009/1226/Reportage]

January 19 2009

Ali Saeed and Nadia Al-Sakkaf
Women living in Sana'a complain of regular sexual harassment on the street, in buses and public places. Ninety percent of a sample of 70 interviewees said they had been harassed in Sana'a one way or another. About 14 percent said they are continuously harassed and around 37 percent said they are harassed physically by men outdoors.

Although the majority of women overcome this intimidation and continue to go about their work outside their homes, some 55 percent would rather cancel their outdoor activities such as shopping or using public transportation than go out without a companion.

Women interviewed identified certain streets they cannot walk in if they are alone because of the men who loiter on their pavements targeting women and girls passing by. Most of these are idle young men who while the hours of the day away sitting in groups on street corners or strolling down busy streets, usually targeting women walking alone or whose faces are veiled.

Social complex

The 17-question survey conducted by the Yemen Times on teasing and sexual harassment in Sana'a revealed that women face sexual harassment regularly and have “lost faith in the society's general moral towards women”, as one of the interviewees put it.

“The problem in Yemen in my opinion stems from the sexual objectification of women and a culture that views them as inferior, not only are they physically weaker but intellectually and morally inferior,” says a Yemeni women blogger currently living in the UK.

She adds that this is the reason why a woman always needs a guardian in the eyes of Yemeni society: if left alone, she will fall into sexual sin and be the cause of a public “fitna”. It is not uncommon in Yemen to see a mother walking behind her 13 year-old son who is her guardian.

Results of the questionnaire showed that around 37 percent of the women are subjected to sexual harassment in the form of degrading insults, telephone calls and text messages. Seventy-two percent of the women said that they were called sexually-charged names while walking in the street and about 20 percent of this group said that they were subjected to such demeaning remarks on a regular basis.

“I get all kind of harassment, verbal and sexual harassment even though I wear the veil and am totally covered every time I go out – sometimes I look as scary as a ghost,” said Nahed, a Yemeni girl. “I have been to Cairo too and I was harassed many times.”

“Harassment does not occur because of what women wear and Islam does not say that men should harass women who are not dressed conservatively: the issue is about morals and manners. If men harass women, it means only one thing which is that they are disrespectful and were badly brought up at home,” she explained.

Using technology

Random calls and texting is common among idle men looking for an opportunity to meet girls.

Analysts attribute this partially to strict segregation in Yemen as it creates lack of interaction and familiarity between the sexes. Curtains are used to separate the sexes when talking to each other, a situation that sexualizes a perfectly normal environment. Any interaction between the sexes is thus deemed to be sexual.

Thirty percent of the interviewees said they had received calls from anonymous men who wanted to chat. Some are persistent and call at odd hours.

“Some boys exchange the numbers of girls they know or come to know by chance. If the girl responds, she becomes the hot cake and her phone never stops ringing,” said Fatima Mohammed Qaid, a university student.

Sexual harassment on some occasions can turn physical if the opportunity is available, as some girls put it. Girls in crowded places and queues are likely to be pinched or touched in an impolite manner.

Although this is not as common as verbal harassment, around 37 percent of the sample said that had been subjected to some sort of physical harassment and three percent said they always are.


Although most women overcome their fear and go about their work using public transportation and walking in public places, some expressed their genuine concern about being harassed on the street.

Around 43 percent said that they are suffering from fear and insecurity as a result of being harassed. Some have said that their impression of men is negative because of the treatment they receive on the streets. A further 14 percent said they worry about going to public places because of the insecurity they feel when men are around.

The results also revealed that there is no particular day on which harassment is more common. Only 30 percent identified weekends as days when the harassment is more common, while the majority did not see much difference.

Silver lining

Sisters Arab Forum had launched a USD 700,000 worth project funded by the Dutch government to provide better protection for women and children exposed to violence and sexual abuse.

Amal Al-Basha, director of the forum, indicated that a telephone hotline will be set up to receive complaints from women and children exposed to sexual harassment.

“We will cooperate with the Ministry of Interior regarding reported cases. The project will monitor violence incidents reported by the media””

Al-Basha told IRIN