Street Harassment is Wrong No Matter What a Woman is Wearing
By now, most people have heard about the viral video from Hollaback!, an anti-street harassment organization, which shows a woman being catcalled numerous times as she walks around New York City. The video has drawn quite a bit of controversy, sparking numerous video and article responses.
One response in particular is quite alarming. It was created by Karim Metwaly, the founder of the popular YouTube channel AreWeFamousNow. The video, titled “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman in Hijab,” features a friend of Metwaly’s walking around NYC for five hours in “casual” clothing, and five hours in a hijab.
The portion of the video with casual clothing shows the woman wearing jeans and a cardigan. She is catcalled numerous times throughout the five hours, with comments ranging from “God Bless You” to “Yo I’m watching that ass” to “I lick p***y.” At one point, the woman is followed by a man for a few blocks until the crew filming the incident intervenes. Meanwhile, the walk in hijab is remarkably quiet, and seemingly absent of any noticeable stares or gestures. The contrast is quite remarkable.
At the end of the video a message appears asking, “What do you think?” and then, “You be the judge.”
I think Metwaly’s video implies the issue with catcalling is women dressing too provocatively, not men feeling entitled to women’s bodies. This sort of logic is inherently oppressive and contributes to the insecurity women can feel when moving through public spaces.
There are many women who feel safer on the streets when wearing hijab. I don’t want to discount their experiences. Wearing hijab may help lead to less street harassment. Yet this is irrelevant. The fault should always be on the person doing the harassing, not the person being targeted. It doesn’t matter if a woman is wearing a burqa, a blazer, or a bikini. Street harassment is always wrong, and it’s never the victim’s fault.
Metwaly’s video also ignored the pretty obvious fact that many women in Muslim majority countries are aggressively catcalled and harassed on the streets even when wearing hijab. Metwaly should be well aware of this as a vlogger whose channel is dedicated to exploring “Egyptian Arab culture.” For example, a 2013 study from UN Women and the Cairo Demographic Center concluded that 99.3 per cent of women surveyed had been harassed in one way or another. A 2007 New York Times article states that up to 90 per cent of women in Egypt wear hijab.
There is nothing inherently sexist about Egyptian or Arab culture of course, but this is exactly the point. Sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny are universal, and affect every state and society in one way or another. There is no utopian Muslim society exempt from these forces and Metwaly is wrong to produce a video that implies as much.
In fact, there is an issue within Muslim communities where some Muslim men problematically insult Muslim women, and try to justify it on theological grounds. For example, some Muslim men shame women who don’t wear hijab and claim this is required of them in the Qur’an. Yet the same men will ignore the fact that they should refrain from lustfully staring at women, or expressing rude comments.
Whether it’s catcalling or shaming for not wearing hijab the underlying issue is the same. Far too much of an emphasis is put on the way women dress, and not on the attitudes of the men attacking them for their appearance. As such, the emphasis of Metwaly’s video should have been on calling out men responsible for harassing women, not shaming women who have the nerve to wear a cardigan instead of an abaya.