This post “Do you like sex?” is a repost, it was originally posted on Lydia’s blog here.
This is a man’s world.
– James Brown, telling the uncomfortable truth for generations to come.
My brother and his girlfriend had come to visit me for one week in Uzbekistan. After a last dinner together it was time to say goodbye. They got into a shared taxi heading to Tashkent to catch their flight, whereas I got into one going to Samarkand. There was just one other passenger in the car. After twenty minutes we stopped because he had to buy some water. I was alone in the car with the young taxi driver. The usual questions start: where are you from? are you alone? what are you doing in Uzbekistan? Then another not so unusual comment: you are beautiful. I make a non-consensual noise and stare away out of the window. A small silence followed by – “Do you like sex?” I sit still in one second of disbelief, then I turn to him and slap him in the face without hesitation. The young man is shocked. Just after that the other passenger gets into the car, unaware of anything unusual, and we are on our way again to Samarkand. The whole taxi ride I feel uncomfortable and angry, and, when the other guy gets out before we are in the center, also scared. The first hour of my resumed solo travel is a disaster.
Flashback to the first days of November. Lukas and I have just met, we are in Albania and have asked to camp in a beautiful garden full of orange trees. We can use the toilet, the owner of the place says, so I walk into the house. “Where is the bathroom?” I ask. The man leads me to it. Out of nowhere he leans in and kisses me on my lips. I am too shocked to react, quickly get into the bathroom and lock it. When I get out Lukas is already standing there, waiting for his turn. Later I tell him what happened, but I am frustrated by my inability to describe how violated and powerless I feel. It is the first time on my travel that I feel unsafe.
A few weeks later I’m in off-season Greece, following the not too busy main road along the coast from Thessaloniki to Istanbul. I have to make a bathroom break, so I head down a dirt road and squat down behind some bushes. Just as I’m pulling my pants back up again, I see a man standing next to his white car, on the dirt road, watching me. Startled, I quickly grab Monster and pedal back to the road. I forget about the incident rather quickly, but after a few kilometers I am shocked by something else: the same car is parked on the shoulder of the road, and the man is standing next to it. He has pulled his penis out of his pants and is masturbating while looking at me heading his way. I make a big swerve around him, my heart beating fast.
The rest of the day I feel unsafe, flinching at every white car I see, unsure if the man is still around.
Turkey in December is cold and quiet. In a small seaside town I find a closed cafe with a patch of grass next to it. The owner is renovating the building; I ask him if it’s alright to camp and soon I’m setting up my tent. He leaves, I believe he’s done for the day, but soon he’s back again with a can of cola for me. “It’s too cold to camp! Come to my house, I live with my mother and sister!” I consider my options and decide to pack up and follow him to a warmer place. When we get to the small apartment there is nobody – no mother, no sister, no nothing. “They will come, they’re just buying some food for dinner.” I am on my guard, not sure what is going on. After some time of awkward Turkish conversation and still nobody arriving, I say I want to leave. I pick up my bag, heading for the door, but the man grabs me roughly, sending the contents of my bag flying across the room. He pushes me onto the bed that serves as sofa in the room, trying to pull down my pants. I am screaming, punching every part of the man I can reach, kicking around, fighting for my life. I don’t know for how long we struggled, it seemed ages, but at some point the man gives up. I think he hadn’t expected such a fierce reaction and didn’t know how to continue, or was scared the neighbours might hear my loud screams; in any case, he shuffles away as I continue to scream aggressively while I pick up my belongings. Outside it’s already dark. I’m trembling but I force myself to keep my head cool, take my bicycle and get the hell out. Where to go? I’m in a dark Turkish town and I don’t trust anybody anymore. I wander around, probably in shock, and eventually I decide to do what I’d done the nights before – hide on the veranda of a dark empty summer house. I call my best friend back home, the only person I want to talk to, and this helps me to calm down. The next morning I get up at sunrise and leave the town without looking back.
Lukas and I are sitting opposite each other in a park in Keshan, Iran, eating falafel. A boy no older than fourteen cycles past on his small bicycle. He stops a few meters behind Lukas, and my attention drifts from our conversation to the boy. He’s making various sexual movements in my direction. I am absolutely stunned. He laughs, cycles off. Shortly after he’s back again. “This is NOT ok!” I shout at him aggressively, believing this will scare him off. It doesn’t. He just hangs around, talking to us in Farsi, while we ignore him, but then he gets so frustrated by our non-reaction that he hits me and races off.
Now let’s go back 7 years. I’m walking from my home in Eindhoven to the bus station, 500 meters further. Three guys of around seventeen years old cycle behind me on the street, singing and laughing. As they get closer I hear the words: “Ik heb een toe-toe-toeter op m’n waterscooter…” One of them cycles onto the pavement, and as he passes me he slaps me on my ass. It is the first time in my life that I experience direct, physical sexual harassment. It confuses me, it makes me cry at night, and I don’t mention it to anyone. The older I get, the more frequent catcalling and physical harassment become. I can honestly say there was at least one incident every week, some smaller than others. It makes me feel violated every time. Girls can’t cycle alone after dark, this was widely accepted, but my whole teenage years I refuse to adhere to this unwritten rule. There’s no way that I will allow my own freedom to be restricted because I am a woman. There’s no way I will bow down to the twisted logic of making women adapt to men’s unacceptable behaviour.
I have thought long and hard about such incidents, trying to understand why it is so difficult for me, and I’m sure women in general, to talk about sexual harassment. For me it comes down to this – I don’t want to feel weak. And telling people about these things would make me feel weak. Because I would get sympathy, I would hear anger at the man responsible, but all this this implicates that the man had a dominant position over me. This doesn’t satisfy me.
What’s really going on is this: men as a social group have a dominant position over women as a social group. This is a systematic problem in our societies, not a problem on an individual level.
When I tell these stories I want to hear disgust at society, at the complex but omnipresent sexism in this world. I want acknowledgment that 50% of the world’s population is being suppressed, is made to live in a constant state of fear and being on her guard, on a daily basis by the other 50%. When I sit in the hostel in Samarkand and hear other male cyclists talk about how nice the people of Iran are, I don’t want to hear stunned silences at my less-than-nice experiences. I want to hear firm resolution to change the patterns that cause men to feel and be above women.
As I sat in that taxi two nights ago, I realized that these things need to be said and heard. The above stories are just a small selection of many more. By now, I can say “I am not afraid” in about eight different languages. But sometimes I am afraid, and I should not feel ashamed to admit that as a woman this is a part of my life, and therefore my journey. And I hope that you as the reader will, instead of sympathy or shock, feel anger at this dark aspect of the world we live in.