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Hadani Ditmars

'Me Too' in MENA

Women in the Middle East, like everywhere else, face a culture of sexist abuse [Getty]

Date of publication: 20 October, 2017

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Blog: Harassment is a universal experience for women, writes Hadani Ditmars.
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the plethora of "me too" confessionals on social media has not been confined to the Western world.

Me too is alive and well in the Middle East and North Africa, from Cairo - named this week as the world's most dangerous city for women - to Turkey, where special all-female "pink buses" in the town of Malatya protect women from harassment.

As I read the horrifying online testimonials of friends, colleagues and strangers all over the world, my thoughts turned to my own experiences as a Lebanese-Canadian journalist working in the MENA for more than two decades.

Often caught between two worlds, I've found myself in some rather tricky situations.

Even though my background is Christian, as someone who works in the Middle East and gets "otherised" in the West, there can be an absurd onus on me to "explain" the bad behaviour of some of the men in the region and the "inherent oppression of the Muslim world".

Harassment is unfortunately a universal experience for women, whether they wear hijab or hot pants, bikinis or burkas

I usually reply that harassment is unfortunately a universal experience for women, whether they wear hijab or hot pants, bikinis or burkas. Harassment and assault are about power, not about what women wear.

Still, I cannot gloss over the serious women's issues that exist in the MENA, any more than I can ignore the unsolved cases of the murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada.

But by virtue of my somewhat fluid identity, I often find myself in interesting situational gestalts in the Middle East.

I remember my first trip to Iran in 1997, on assignment for Sight and Sound magazine at the annual fajr film festival. I arrived at the airport at 4:00am with no one to greet me, wearing a rather makeshift hijab. I managed to negotiate a ride to my hotel - the Azadi ["freedom"] near Evin prison - only to find a note welcoming me to Iran as "Mr Hadani". Apparently Ershad, the Ministry of Islamic guidance, thought I was a man.

When they discovered my true nature the next day at a meeting of all the "foreign guests" there was some consternation. Serious-looking bearded officials from Ershad complained I was "talking too much with men" to which I replied: "I have come here all the way from Canada to interview film-makers and you have only presented me with men - I'm just doing by job."

Later they were shocked when, as it happened to also be my birthday, a visiting French director gave me a kiss on both cheeks to congratulate me. The director and I were being interviewed on national television at the time - though the kiss was off-camera - and in a rather surreal montage moment, the heavies from Ershad did an about face on a commercial break, presenting me with a cake full of candles, singing "Happy Birthday" in unison.

I went for a hike up the mountain road north of my hotel the next day, earnestly wearing my makeshift hijab, only to be whistled at by construction workers.

I looked at them in shock, saying in my head, "but this is the Islamic Republic of Iran!" I would soon learn it was just a case of cultural nuance with public and private personas quite separate.
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On my way to dinner with the head of the cinematheque and a film professor who had two wives - his first wife in her 60s and his much younger former student - we stopped at a grocery store to pick up supplies. I was asked to take my friend's daughter for a ride on a mechanical toy horse while he shopped.

As I stood there with my hair slipping out of my rather sloppy hijab, I was approached not by a construction worker, but by an irate grandmotherly type waving her finger, pointing at me and the child, and clucking her tongue as if to say "what kind of mother are you setting such a bad example".

Public vs private

I attended a lecture by a mullah who spoke about women still being "useful" after they had "faded just like dried flowers", and then went to a party that evening at a famous film-maker's house, where I was served home-made vodka and opium and where women slipped out of their chadors into sexy Versace-inspired outfits to shake their shoulders and move their hips to bandari dance music.

I watched covered women defer to men in public, and yet when I stayed with a family for a few days, witnessed a wife scream at her husband in a way that would have been unthinkable in public.

Most single women of a certain age I met were desperate to get out of Iran, and yet when I returned to antiseptic Vancouver, I missed the warmth of the culture and even the codified flirting that went on amid chadors and religious rhetoric.

I found myself in a place where women exposed their flesh at cafes, but where no one would share their newspaper or make eye contact. A place that celebrated its feminism and yet was in denial about violence against women, especially women of colour, and workplace harassment was as common as anywhere. After a while I almost missed the secret police that had followed me in Iran. At least someone cared.

When I worked in Cairo a few years later as an editor, I only lasted a month. I loved the culture but couldn't handle the daily harassment en route to the office; the men making animal noises and trying to grab me. One day I took a taxi instead, but the driver started jerking off at a stoplight and I ran out.

I couldn't handle the disconnect between the literature of such staunch feminists as Nawal al-Sadawi, the cult of Oum Kalthoum and the on-the-ground reality.

I remember telling my editor, a middle-aged Egyptian Armenian, about the harassment I faced. "I have no idea what you mean," he replied, incredulous. "I walk down those streets every day and nothing happens to me."

When I came back to Vancouver, I actually appreciated the sterility. My favourite thing to do was to shop for produce unmolested in the air-conditioned grocery store.

Iraq was always the safest place for me to work as a woman journalist, except that the Iraqi police would often stop me from entering my hotel with blonde male colleagues, thinking I was a local working girl.

That sense of safety changed dramatically after 2003, as the status of women there - once the highest in the Arab world - went into serious decline thanks to the post-invasion chaos and the empowerment of extremists.

My friend Ahlam, a single mother war widow in Baghdad, pulled her daughter out of school, as it was too dangerous to guarantee her safety. Subsidised daycare and reproductive healthcare disappeared, as did state employment quotas where women had once formed almost half of the civil service.

I had to go everywhere accompanied by a male minder - not the old Baathist spooks who used to make sure we didn't speak to any suspicious characters, but men to guard against other men.
Underneath the patriarchies of the region lie deep untold stories of the divine feminine

In Bethlehem, on assignment for a CBC radio documentary on the plight of Palestinian Christians a few years later, I spent a lonely New Year's Eve in a cold grotto-like hostel, having rebuffed the advances of a well known Palestinian bookstore owner in Jerusalem who then refused to buy the two dozen copies of Dancing in the No Fly Zone I had brought with me all the way from Canada for a reading at his shop.

As I made my way alone through the checkpoint in the wall, back to Bethlehem, an Israeli soldier flirted with me and asked me about my book. "It's about women and militarism," I said unsmiling, and he let me pass.

I rose early the next day and decided as I was in Bethlehem, I would go to Manger Square and head to mass at the Church of the Nativity. I didn't realize it was a special Catholic feast day celebrating Mary and her sacred motherhood, and inadvertently found myself in a procession of pilgrims on their way to the milk grotto - the place where Mary found refuge and suckled baby Jesus as she fled Herod's "slaughter of the innocents", on her way to Egypt.

Legend has it that a single drop of her milk turned the limestone caves white, and women still gather there today to pray for conception.

As I tried to record the pilgrims' liturgy for my radio documentary, I began to weep - somewhat inconveniently for the recording process.

On that day honouring a Jewish woman revered by both Muslims and Christians, I wasn't sure what I was weeping for - myself and the bad experience I'd had with the book seller, the stories of the women I'd been documenting struggling with life under occupation and dealing with harassment from both Israeli and Palestinian men - or just the tragedy of the birthplace of Jesus being surrounded by a wall and checkpoints and settlements.

But as I walked onwards with the throng of pilgrims, I realised that we were walking on sacred ground. Not just to Christians, but old Canaanite fertility shrines.

I felt the visceral reality that underneath the patriarchies of the region lie deep untold stories of the divine feminine.

Just as in Babil in Iraq, there is a shrine to Imam Ali's son that is used by local women to pray for fertility - as underneath it lies a Babylonian shrine - so too does the Goddess lurk everywhere in the ancient earth of the Middle East.

In lands where so many innocents are still slaughtered and testosterone-driven rage trumps compassion, she is ready to emerge angry and proud and beautiful and defiant - ready to say "me too".

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq. A former editor at New Internationalist, she has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades. Her next book, Ancient Heart, is a political travelogue of Iraqi heritage sites.

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars

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