The tip of the Iceberg – Sexual Harassment
By Safa Amir
I found it interesting to see that in the news recently, there was an article about how the government has pledged to eliminate sexual harassment of women and girls by 2030.
Putting aside the unsettling thought that the issue has taken this long to be taken seriously, I have to wonder, how realistic is this goal? Is it even possible for the government to intervene on a deep and wide reaching societal issue like this?
In the article, they present a case of a school girl being harassed on the bus by other male students. The school dealt with this case once it was reported, but an equally important question is: did the punishment change the attitude of the school-aged perpetrators? As a teacher, I wonder what else we could do to help to protect our young people. Should we run more personal development lessons, or dedicate more time and training to spotting and handling sensitive cases of sexual harassment that occurs within our schools? How does the school timetable even enable us to incorporate these additional classes and training? Perhaps budgets for additional, in-school safety organisations need to be set up.
Of course there’s a certain degree of undeniable responsibility that schools hold where it comes to protecting children. However, what comes into school in the way of behaviours is more often than not deeply influenced by what is happening in childrens’ homes and social circles outside of school.
What we have to try to understand is that this is largely an issue that stems within the family life and home environment. The sexual harassment I faced growing up was usually at the hands of uncles making inappropriate comments about my body, male cousins wanting to play sexually-themed games, friends of the family believing that they had a right to violate my sense of self.
At school, there were 3 boys in some of my classes that decided to tease me and call me “Gonad” because they thought it rhymed with my name. It didn’t – but that’s besides the point because I was more concerned with learning what the word even meant. I had to find a dictionary to look it up and I was disgusted by it. But I just couldn’t stick up for myself because I was ashamed of being referred to in such vulgar language.
But I know other girls were harassed physically. In the school corridors, boys would whip girls’ bra straps and smack their butts. I remember sitting in my French lesson and watching the same boy who called me “Gonad” sit next to a female classmate and rub her back while she giggled. I recognise that giggle now – it wasn’t a giggle of enjoyment – it was an awkward squirm by a girl stuck in that moment with nobody to protect her.
I’m 37 now, and I still get stuck when an inappropriate comment is made - I shrivel inside for a while until I finally concoct a fantasy where I knock out that person for what they said/did. When Ariana Grande was being groped by the bishop, I shuddered for her and wanted to punch him. I saw the disbelief on her face and read her thoughts: “How is this happening to me?” I wondered if she, too, left her body and watched herself being abused on national television. It is horrific.
Maggie Astor tweeted: “I think every woman can look at Ariana Grande’s face and body language and viscerally feel what she’s feeling. The tension. The nervous laughter. Not wanting to make a scene or make him angry.”
What can the government do to make us feel safe? Arrest perpetrators? Provide self defence classes as part of the curriculum? Educate boys in school on the effects of harassment? Remind men through a national campaign not to harass women? Do they not know this already?
Apparently not enough do.
In my classroom last week, I played Leigh-Anne Regan’s story from the #BelieveInYou campaign. When the video finished, there was a moment of silence which was erupted by a sudden applause. A class of 15-16 year old boys and girls were able to recognise the bravery it took for this woman to share her story of sexual harassment. These teenagers connected with the injustice.
What does this tell us?
That there is room for empathy, and room for change. Girls and boys who will eventually be the women and men of the next generation have the capacity to be influenced for good, to speak up when they experience or witness sexual violation and to recognise it for what it is: something atrocious that needs to be wiped out much sooner than 2030.