One afternoon when I was eight years old, I got off at my bus stop and none of my friends got off with me. At such a young age, I wasn’t quite sure of what I was afraid of exactly, but I knew that something on that long road to my alleyway seemed daunting. I tried to focus on the fall leaves falling from so high above me. I hummed to myself. When I was halfway down the road, a red Mustang convertible with two men in their twenties slowed down beside me on the road. I took a sideways glance at them and noticed them sneering at me and was immediately suspicious of the driver and his backwards baseball cap. They followed me for several yards, watching me and smiling an evil smile, before they began to talk to me. “Are you lost?” “Don’t be afraid…” Snickers. “Let me drive you home.” For whatever reason, I was wise. I picked the closest house to me and ran up, opened the gate, closed it behind me, and rang the doorbell until someone opened.
When I was older, I would walk down Abrams Road (a pretty busy main road in Dallas, Texas) to go home from my college. I literally lived across the street and only needed to walk ten minutes to arrive home. Despite the short walk, I always kept my eyes wide open for what–or who–might be lurking in the bushes. Of course, I’d get daily catcalls from men driving by in low pick-up trucks. “Mamiiiii!” Whistles. I’d hurry my pace a little bit. On bad days, I would turn around and give them angry looks (which I believed were expressing a clear “FUCK YOU!” but were probably just making their day). I always knew, though, that if one of those fuckers did something to me, and if I was lucky enough afterward, maybe that tough piece of shit would see his ass in jail receiving the same treatment.
I moved to Beirut, Lebanon about a year ago. I noticed I was no longer comfortable wearing shorts or tank tops in public, due to the stares I would get from dirty men who would spend their days loitering the streets. After several months, I realized no matter what I wore I would get stares from their dead eyes, so I settled comfortably for dresses with leggings—a happy medium, I thought. On Election Day at my university, the street from my house to my university was lined with police officers at every few meters. I walked the normal path to school, wearing leggings underneath my shorts. I walked in a daze, as it was around 8:30am, and I’m not a morning person. Suddenly, I realized that a police officer was calling me. I freaked out, because at the time I spoke very little Arabic, and I was worried that I was doing something wrong and wouldn’t be able to communicate with him. I walked back to him and asked, “Shou?” with a concerned expression on my face. He nudged a guy (not in uniform) that was leaning against the wall next to him and laughed, then said something in Arabic that I didn’t understand. I repeated, “Shou?” but this time with an intonation that said I did not hear him. He repeated and laughed louder, while looking up and down my legs and raising his eyebrows at me. At this point, I realized he was making comments about my legs. I was utterly confused. It was the first time I was being spoken to in such a way by a police officer, a man who was hired to protect people like myself on their way to school on this particular day due to impending chaos. I shook my head in frustration and walked away while the two men laughed, and I heard the officer calling to another officer nearby and talking about me.
Another incident occurred on my way home from university one evening. Every day and night I took the same road to university and back home, passing the same construction site with the same construction workers. Over a period of a few weeks, I noticed a man with glossy black eyes staring at me every time I passed. Twice he began to follow me, but never left the area near the construction site. After the second time, I decided to change routes, though the new route was longer. One evening around 6:30pm after a hard day in classes, I forgot about the new route and took the old shortcut by the construction site. The street was unusually clogged with cars and motorcycles, leaving no room to cross the street. I was forced to keep walking on the sidewalk, which was being blocked by several construction workers on their breaks. As I slowly came nearer to them, they turned and faced me, and I saw the leader of the pack was the man with glossy black eyes. The man roughly pushed the other two men out of the way in order to open the path for me to walk through. I cautiously walked through, paying attention to avoid eye contact at all costs. Though as I was between them, they started to close in on me and whispered, “Shou tayyib ya helwe” (How delicious, my pretty) and various other sweet nothings. I hurried past them and found a place to cross the street, and I turned my head around to see that the three men were following me. I knew, and they knew, that once I crossed that busy street, I would be in a quiet and empty alleyway. While in between cars, I opened my backpack’s side pocket, grabbed my knife, and held it in my fist. I held my fist down behind me so that no one walking in front of me would see the knife, but the three men behind me could. I felt confident in myself, and I knew that if they continued to pursue me, I would have no emotional trouble in stabbing them. They didn’t follow me up the alleyway.
I’ve been lucky in my life. I’ve managed to get out of situations before they got sticky. However, that doesn’t exclude me from bearing the burden of responsibility. Though I’ve never been raped, I know other women who have been raped. Though I’ve never been raped, I know there are other women who continue to be raped today. Though I’ve never been raped, it is part of my responsibility to do what I can to prevent it from continuing to tomorrow. I’m not sharing my stories to ask for pity. I went through nothing. I’m sharing my stories to show you that even someone who has been through nothing has experienced enough to be able to know her responsibility. All of us have experienced enough to know.
Lebanon is not a progressive country. It does not have a great system of laws or law enforcement in place. When women get raped, they have few options. I’m sure you’ve heard stories on the news of honor killings. This still happens in some parts of the South. The family of the girl will kill her, as she is no longer pure after being raped. This is not very common, though. The main option a woman has is to go to the police. To start, rape is only counted as a legitimate crime if the penis penetrates the vagina, meaning that any other sort of sexual attack, whether it be harassment, anal penetration, oral penetration, etc. does not get punished. If the woman has been “legitimately” raped, she must go to the police within enough time for there to be enough evidence for their high standards. Most women who get raped don’t go to the police, because such a large percentage of women who do end up getting raped by the police officers as well, because “they’re no longer pure.” If, somehow, a woman gets raped, she goes to the police, she gets the evidence documented, she finds the rapist, and she goes to court, the rapist will be absolved of his crimes if he marries the victim. That’s right, if the rapist marries his victim, he will not go to jail. That also means that husbands are free to rape (and abuse) their wives.
In my literary theory course last semester, we were discussing Judith Butler’sGender Troubles. A big, burly guy in the class made some sort of rude comment then gave “support” by using a rape joke, which everyone laughed at. My friend and I immediately shot our hands up to respond. We attempted to reason with him about how inappropriate rape jokes are, how it perpetuates rape culture, and so on. Our professor, a liberal, American, New Yorker agreed with us, though he initially tried to stick to calming everyone down. Class ended way too soon. As the big guy was leaving the room, he shouted at us, “You elitists! How dare you call me out like that in class, as if I was a rapist!” We were shocked by his red-faced reaction, and he left before we could respond. As we were leaving the building together, furiously whispering to each other, one of the other men from our class walked by us and said, “You shouldn’t make such a big deal about it. This is Lebanon. Get used to it. Rape is funny.” That night we e-mailed our professor about the incidents after class, and he responded with support, saying he would bring it up at the next session. The war on this topic ended up lasting two sessions. Finally at the end when I could no longer bear it, I nearly cried and strained my voice at the class, saying, “Every single one of you knows someone who has been raped. There are no exceptions. When someone you know has been through something so traumatic, how could you possibly find it appropriate to joke about it? What if your mother or your sister had been raped?” No one responded. In fact, while I spoke with such emotion, the two men who commented previously looked at their watches, put their heads down on their desks, and closed their eyes. Class ended, and I ran to the bathroom and cried, as I thought of my close friends who had been raped and how I was doing this for them. That night I told my mother about what happened, and she became angry with me. “Are you trying to change the world here? This is too big for you to fight! You can’t change a system; this is the way the world is. You’re only going to get yourself hurt! These guys are going to get mad at you if you get them in trouble and maybe they’ll try to rape you! Why would you want to pursue something so trivial as this?” The semester ended before we could get some real action taken. The chair of the department sat in our class on the third day of the war to observe the two male students’ behaviors and reactions to the conversation, but one of them didn’t even show up. We did, however, upon my friend’s insistence, approach the guy who told the rape joke when we found him smoking a cigarette on campus. He listened to my friend try to reason with him more respectfully, without having so many eyes on him, but in the end he still believed that comedy was necessary to “remove taboos.” I don’t think he knows what that even means. I felt like we lost, but in a way I was proud that we at least tried, at the expense of having the whole class gossip about us and distrust us. We didn’t like them anyway.
Just yesterday, though, I joined a fiction-writing course for the new semester. The professor of this course was obviously of the same English department as the professor of the literary theory course. When this writing professor gave out the syllabus, he explained the things he will not accept in the class. One of those things, to my surprise, was voyeuristic rape scenes. He said it was unnecessary to describe “violence as sex” in order to appeal to readers, as it perpetuated rape culture. He clarified that his ban does not mean rape cannot be talked about, in fact he said that it should be talked about, but that it should be done in a way that emphasizes the traumatic aspect of it, rather than the graphic voyeuristic aspect of it. It was the first time in all of my years taking English and writing courses at this university that a professor clarified such a point. Maybe by speaking up and sticking to our beliefs, my friend and I were able to make a different in this university’s department. Maybe that will affect the students of the department, and their friends, and their friends. Maybe the small effort we made in one class was worth the small price. Maybe rape culture won’t be something women are expected to “get used to” in Lebanon anymore.