By Nikoletta Gjoni, Maryland, USA, SSH Correspondent
When I recently read about an American woman’s street harassment experiences in India and the negative impact they had on her, I couldn’t help but think about how a) it vaguely reminded me of stories and experiences from my native country of Albania and b) how unsurprised I felt overall reading about RoseChasm’s experiences in a foreign country. Not to say that sexual harassment and lewd behavior doesn’t occur in the good old U.S. of A, but there’s a distinctly different discomfort and fear that courses through you when it occurs in a new place you are unfamiliar with.
People who think street harassment is a form of a compliment driven by attraction are wrong. Street harassment, not unlike rape, is about control. It’s about men claiming their dominance over women and feeling that essential right to comment on or act upon whatever they want. Because boys will be boys.
This can come across as more muted in countries like the U.S. where it is essentially known that no, you cannot just scream out sexually explicit phrases to a passerby or touch someone without their permission. Though today this is general knowledge (or should be general knowledge) in most places a person may live in or visit, the lines become blurred when a society is historically patriarchal to the core, and while women may be respected, they are also kept at a safe distance from men. Just in case.
My country, Albania is steeped in rich tradition, old history, and vast contradictions. Traditionally a patriarchal society with “the man is the head of the house” cliché, it is a country that both honors its women but can easily shame them. Catcalling and whistling is the norm. Being followed for a few blocks by a gaggle of boys is the norm. Being singled out because of your accent is the norm. Most is harmless and amounts to nothing in the end, but sometimes you get the occasional stranger that makes you pick up your step a little bit.
A good family friend of mine (also Albanian) was visiting a few years ago. Out with her mom, aunts, and cousins, she was ahead of the group with one or two other girls. What essentially started out as the “typical” come on (whatever that is) turned into a more frightening experience with the man threatening to take her around the corner and “really show her what he could do to her.” Why? Because she retaliated when he grabbed her while walking by. His ego was bruised and he was humiliated in public.
Forget her humiliation. Forget the fact that she was minding her own business. Forget the fact that had she even noticed him in the first place or made eye contact, grabbing her would still have been a highly inappropriate way to reach out. Forget the fact that he wasn’t even really interested in her as an individual. Forget everything but the fact that he asserted his dominance over a young woman walking down the street and then became verbally abusive when she reacted negatively instead of just walking on.
Is this experience special to Albania? Of course not. One of the first things my friend told me after sharing the story was: “I wished then I had my pepper spray with me.” She’s Albanian, as am I. But we haven’t been raised there. We didn’t grow up with the casual mentality that “girls ask for it” when they dress a certain way, speak a certain way, or act a certain way. And when they don’t—well—just keep on walking and don’t give the perpetrator ammo.
It was a little jarring to see just how often I would get hassled, for one absurd reason or another. And the fact that I didn’t know just how to respond (or whether to respond at all) was what added to the frustration. I am Albanian by blood, traditions, and rearing, but I was a stranger to the minute details that made someone quintessentially from there. And all I could think about was how this kind of behavior just doesn’t happen in the States—a common misconception about the sleek ‘modern’ world vs. everything else that’s old.
But it does happen in the States and it certainly does happen in Washington, D.C. Maybe not to me, not all the time, but to others it does. What we have going for us here is that there is a cultural awareness slowly growing. There are programs, sites, people, and places one can refer to for help. We are becoming better at practicing bystander intervention. RoseChasm didn’t have that luxury in India and there are still so many places in the world that don’t understand the damage caused by victim blaming.
Albania, too is slowly getting there, though it is stuck in a crevice found between tradition and modernity. For all its collective machismo and testosterone driven decision making, it is a beautiful country with much to learn from. I just hope next time I go there will be one less car slowing down on the street just so heads can come out of the windows to whistle and gawk.
Nikoletta Gjoni graduated from UMBC in 2009 with a B.A. in English Literature. After graduation, she did almost four years of freelance work in a D.C. broadcast station, in addition to having worked as a literacy and linguistics assessor for pre-k classrooms in D.C.’s charter schools. To get to know her better, she can be tracked on both her creative blog and Twitter, @nikigjoni.Share on Facebook