“Take it as a compliment!”: harassment, sexism, and research

ImageI’ve recently completed a couple of research projects in Tunisia, which was, on the whole a very good experience. Tunisians are currently in the process of trying to change the direction of their country, which is of course a huge task, and I really appreciate the time and energy that people gave to help us and to talk to us about their work. However, the constant harassment that my friend/colleague/collaborator and I faced really wore me down after a while.

The harassment ranges from cars honking as they drive past to men walking behind me and whispering in my ear, “hey, beautiful!” to casual “ca va?”s to shouts of “hey, wanna fuck me?” to very obvious leering to ‘friendly’ attempts to talk us by men who wouldn’t leave when we politely (and then less politely) told them we weren’t interested to cars that slowed and followed us when we were walking down the street at night. And this is constant. In the space of a few metres in a busy area, we might have four or five groups of men shout at us.

I want to be clear here: this is not limited to Tunisia. It happens plenty in Perth, although most of the time when I’m walking or cycling around there I’m wearing headphones so I miss it. I got far more harassment in Tunisia than I get in Australia, partly because I’m obviously foreign. But then, the situation is reversed in Australia: Aboriginal Australians face constant racist harassment in Australia (including from the police), and many others (including Australian citizens who aren’t Anglo-Saxon or who speak a language other than English) face outright racist abuse or more subtle racism. And this is not to mention the sexism that even relatively privileged women in Australia face.

I don’t often write about this aspect of my work, and perhaps I should. As I get more confident as a researcher, I want to write more about the process, to be more present within the final published piece. For now, this is a start. The work is not only the interviews that will make it into the final publication, but also this context that surrounds them: trying different strategies for dealing with the harassment (ignoring it, shouting back, wondering if shouting back will lead to trouble). Not wanting to leave the hotel, some days, because I was just too sick of dealing with it.

And, at the same time, being very aware of my privilege, being aware that I am lucky enough to have access to international travel, and that I have a voice (however small) within the authority of academia. Knowing that however unpleasant I may find street harassment, my work is temporary and soon I will be elsewhere, and trying to present an analysis that will somehow be useful in dealing with all this.

I’m not going anywhere in particular with this. I’m sick, and very tired, and in a new country with new challenges. So it’s best to finish by letting the last words go to introducing awesome Tunisian feminists, who like all Tunisian women deal with this every day and are both in a better position to understand the situation there and to work out what to do about it: check out Feminism Attack!

[If you know of any feminist groups working on street harassment in Tunisia who need a signal boost, feel free to mention them in the comments and I’ll add them in here.]

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