A friend of mine recently hosted a round table about the hurtful words we never really think about. Unfortunately I couldn’t be there, so I contributed by email. She asked me about the words “Ya Binit” and how they can be harmful. I started to write and my response to her was short and quick, and I wasnt satisfied with it. The ideas kept swirling in my head and the anger was there boiling and bubbling needing to come out.

 

I am not a binit – A little girl devoid of maturity, experience, or sexuality. I am in my mid thirties, and for you to reduce me to a little girl with those two words is not acceptable. I don’t care if you are afraid of me and my body. You can not reduce me to a hymen, an elastic membrane (that sometimes doesn’t even exist). An elastic membrane that you think you can use to control me. I am not a binit because it nullifies all the hard work and the years I have put into fighting your oppression. Fighting for my place in schools, fighting for my place in the work force, fighting for my place in the street. Fighting to be recognized, and yet you still, and very flippantly, call me a girl.

 

I am not a binit- not after all the years I have been working, building a long career filled with successes and failures. I am not a binit- not after paying my own rent with my own hard earned money. I pay my own bills, I buy my own clothes, I paint my own walls and a little binit doesn’t do that. I am not a binit simply because you cant deal with my liberation and independence!

 

I am a woman, and your misogynist question “Anesah will Madam?”- is your polite way of asking me if I am a virgin or not; If I am legitimized by yet another man and his hegemony over my sexuality. If I am sanctioned by marriage or under the auspices of a father or brother or some other familial male figure. Your question renders me useless. It invalidates me. It perpetuates your oppression, sanctioned by state, society and family. It basically asks me who is the man that controls you, as if I have no control over my own destiny. Ya Binit reduces me and my value to what is, or isn’t, between my legs. Well here is a news flash, what is or isnt between my legs is none of your business.

 

I am not a binit and your questions of “anseh will madam?” will not be answered. I am a woman and I will not be reduced to a child tethered by a hymened leash that exists in your head.

 

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Mouthing off- Anita Kunz

Mouthing off- Anita Kunz

Yesterday I was in the elevator about to leave the office, I pressed GF to go down but instead it went up. It opened on the 5th floor and there a man was waiting. He was a construction worker and it was clear he thought that because of our varying class difference he should wait till I was done and call back the elevator. I thought that was silly, we both want to go down to the ground floor, and what a waste of time and energy. We are both human, what is this silliness of class and gender! But it seems the invitation to the ride the elevator meant that it was an invitation to harass. He looked me up and down, his pelvis made the slightest move closer and with a sly look on his face he winked. I shouted at him in the angriest and most assertive of my voices “NO”. His body crumbled and his demeanor became that of shame, he looked away and mumbled “Istagfur allah”, god forgive. We left the elevator.

This is the latest incident of a lifetime of incidents. I have normalized, and for too long, the harassment I endure at the hands of men. Growing up I have been stared at, touched, called out at and, and, and… but I learned to ignore, and become oblivious to it. I lived in a bubble where, in my mind, I was not objectified. Two years ago that changed. A friend of mine came to my house and started a conversation; she asked me “what do you do when you get harassed?” And I immediately said “I don’t get harassed.” What a farce, I get harassed on a regular basis, everyday is an assault of some sort, I just became very good at using defensive tactics that made me invisible, protected me, or just allowed me to disassociate from the stares, the following, the “accidental” brushing, the catcalling…etc.

Throughout the last two years I have worked with my dear friend on an initiative to combat this assault and take a more assertive stand on harassment. We are still working on it. While on this journey I have taken myself out of my bubble and taken notice of every transgression on my body, my being, my soul and I have reacted. I no longer disassociate but instead I engage by being more vocal, more aware and more assertive. Not just with the offenders but with other women too, learning from them and exchanging with them strategies, ideas and tools for dealing with the abuse. For example, last year I was walking down a street in downtown Amman. This man looks at my breasts lustfully and says in the sleaziest of tones “Shu hal ibizaz” (look at those tits). Had I been in my bubble I would have just kept walking without even hearing or acknowledging what he said. That is not what happened. I stopped in my tracks and turned around. I filled my lungs with air and started to tell him off in my loudest of voices, the point was to turn the shame towards him and attract attention to him (shaming the offender and exposing him was one the strategies we talked about and it worked). Being the coward that he was he quickly lowered his head and with a fearful and stricken look on his face he scuttled along quickly like the rat that he is, people were looking at him rather than at me and wondering what did he do, rather than what did I do. I walked away head held high knowing that I stood up for myself and countless other women. I knew that next time, as I am sure there will be a next time, this lowlife will think twice and maybe thrice before calling out at a woman.

These daily acts of violence and aggression, whether physical or not, mean that I have to change how I deal with the world and I hate it. I hate that men like the two I mention leave within me a bad feeling of distrust, anger, and aggression towards mankind. I hate that every time I try to be nice to a man he takes it as invitation to assault my being or body in some way or form. I hate that I have to always be on alert, on guard, suspicious of acts of kindness and withholding acts of kindness. But I have decided to turn that hate, anger and mistrust in to an act of empowerment.

I have experienced firsthand what the power of sharing, talking and exposing these acts of harassment can do, and so I am going to write, talk and expose these acts every time they happen. I will not be silenced, I am not a victim. It is my right to walk down the street with the respect and rights due to me and my body. And when those rights are taken away I will not wait for someone to “rescue” me or fight on my behalf. I can do it myself.

I was listening to a speech at the Toastmasters Division Contest this weekend entitled “In Her Shoes” by a young man. His speech was about women. He started with skits about women drivers, about wives that spend all their husbands’ money and women among other derogatory scenarios. He moves into the body of his speech by saying he wants to put himself in a woman’s shoes and even puts on a blond wig for this part.

Askar talks about how easy it for women to get by on their looks. He does a skit in which the woman at the office is not available because she has sneaked off to get her nails. How about the idea that women get better performance appraisals at the office because they are pretty and flick their hair at the boss! How about the wife that calls her husband asking him for more money because she once again maxed the two credit cards and she needs to shop some more for frivolous unnecessary things. He spoke about how women have it easy in marriage as they lay out their conditions and put a price on their dowry.

The sexist comments and scenarios just kept coming and I couldn’t keep quiet. I called out bullshit a couple of times, and when I did it wasn’t just for me. It was for every woman who’s had to work twice or thrice as hard as the man sitting next to her, doing the same job and getting paid more than her. It was for every woman who has had a mate forced upon her by her father, brother, or uncle. It was for every woman denied education so her brother can go to school despite her being the better and smarter student. It was for every woman who has been slapped, punched, beaten, hit, or raped by a man because he could. It was for every woman who has been cat called, looked over, followed, touched, or objectified , for every woman sexually harassed on the street, in the office and in any public and private space. For every woman who stays at home because her father, brother, husband or son will not let her earn a living for herself and become independent. For every woman who toils in her house 24/7 making sure her family has a hot meal and clean safe home to come back to every day. For every woman on a diet trying to be that air brushed model in the magazine. This was and is for every woman and all women.

These women do not get by on their looks, or a flick of the hair. The speaker used stereotypes to get a laugh out of us. He pigeon-holed woman as objects of beauty and frivolity, bad drivers, and as lazy and unprofessional beings, that is what he saw when he put himself in a woman’s shoes! He then tried to turn his speech around not by negating any of what he said but by saying that women and men both have it hard and that both genders compliment and complete each other. To me this translated into him reinforcing these stereotypes, and saying they are OK because the men complete the other half of the equation. An argument I can NOT accept.

What angered me the most, and saddened me even, was that the women in his club, and area had said nothing when he presented his speech in these contests. Even the women in the room that day excused his misogyny because he said that one sentence at the end or because it was a humorous speech and therefore not a serious speech that warrants such a reaction from me. I was even chastised publicly, and officially complained against because I spoke out and up against this sexism.

Speaking up and against an injustice is never easy. It isn’t popular, it isn’t polite even. But it is the right thing to do. Women have been silent and silenced too long. We are forced to be submissive by culture, upbringing, guilt, shame and even coercion. Discrimination, misogyny, and sexism should not be tolerated, even in jest and in fact should be opposed.

I am sick of being shushed because it is not polite to speak up. I am tired of being told its OK because it is funny. I am exasperated by the people that tell me to look around me, it’s true – to them I tell them to look farther afield than their immediate circle of privilege and prejudice. I don’t see why I have to take this abuse quietly, do you?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” I will not be oppressed or an oppressor, and I did not appreciate the neutrality in that room that day, because with it came the tacit approval of our silence.

One of my favorite reads in the past few years is Amin Maalouf’s book On Identity entitled: In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. The book discusses how our identity is made up of multiple facets and “it is built up and changes throughout a person’s lifetime.” The book was a response to 9/11 and was trying to answer how murderous identities are born. But I won’t go into that now, you can read the book if want to learn more. But the question begs itself, Who am I?

The idea that we relate to many identities and react to the various criticisms or praises to a part of our identity and it comes to the forefront was fascinating and understandable. It made sense that when a part of you is under attack, misrepresented, misinterpreted then you want to change that and you react or act. But I’ve never really took an in depth look into who I am from that sense. I always introduced myself within a context. Until now. So with out context and for the sake answer the question this is my Identity.

Two identities come to the forefront of my mind: I am an Arab, I am a woman. Both have been the strongest identifiers for me. The first comes from two places, assumptions people make about me, and pride. I am constantly told I look nothing like an Arab and so I am addressed as and treated as a foreigner in my own home. Here I constantly correct that assumption by asking “What does an Arab look like?” When someone speaks to me in English despite being spoken to in Arabic my response today is “Ana Ma fhimet, Ma ba7ki Englizy”. This translates into I am sorry I don’t understand, I don’t speak English. Yes I know this piece is in English and I’m always using English ,I will explain that in another post.

I am proud of being an Arab, I am proud of being Jordanian . This pride comes from constantly representing my culture, my heritage and explaining it to westerners. My first experience at being a cultural ambassador/ translator was a visit to America six years ago. The trip lasted about two months and it was such an eye opening experience. I never knew how Arab I was until I had to speak up about my country, my region, my language, my traditions, my society …etc. It is hard trying to break stereotypes and presenting a positive spin on years of negativity and misrepresentations. But it is so rewarding when you succeed in changing fear into understanding.

The other part of me is my womanhood. I love being a woman. I have struggled very hard in a man’s world to be. I grew up amongst three brothers, in a misogynistic home with gender stereotypes constantly being reinforced in the simplest of daily chores and activities. I worked in male dominated fields early on in my career, in which I had to be tough and masculine in my attitudes. I walked in streets where I am made conscious of my status as a female, made sexual with a look, a comment, and sometimes even a touch. My early conditioning was to accept apologetically this placement in life. To accept that men will always be superior. Ha ha ha… yeah right. They are more than welcome to think that, but I will not apologize for being a woman, and I am not inferior. And if anyone has a problem with that I am more than happy to set them straight! I love being a woman and I enjoy my mind, my body, myself.

There are other parts of my identity that I used to relate to strongly but not anymore. I think that I have grown enough that I no longer need to validate those parts of me by making them important and constantly wearing them on my sleeve. Not that I need to validate being an Arab woman. But I am secure enough to know that I don’t need to showcase all my facets. It also makes for interesting discoveries of oneself by others.

A woman’s relationship with her breasts and how she adorns them is a very complex one. We want support, sexiness, beauty, lift, size all rolled into one. Everyday a multitude of women put on a bra, myself included. I do not remember a day when I went braless. Even at the beach I have a special beach bra that I wear under my bathing suit unless there is one sewn into it.

I am thirty one and I have been wearing bras since I was 10 years old! I remember vividly going to a department store and buying my first bras with my mother. It was a very strange experience. There was the confusion of size and which ones to get. We poured over the training bras section religiously. I looked at all these nice pretty bras and lacy ones and sexy ones, even at that young age I knew I wanted something saucy. But somehow with the shame were are taught about our bodies prohibited me from asking for them from my mother. I knew that disapproval would be swift in coming if I voiced these desires. We ended up with two very practical white ones and on beige bra that clasped at the front. I loved that one it was so cool because it was different. Thinking back I cant help but smile and say how tame!

As the years went by my mother continued to supervise my bra purchases and sometimes we even exchanged some. The ones we bought were boring, so I always managed to borrow the lacy black ones and the pretty ones from her bra drawer. Sometimes she never noticed and I got to keep them. But with time the size of my breasts grew bigger and bigger and we could no longer share.

With the breast growth came bra independence too. I would go out and buy my own support and this is where the real dilemma started. I had boobs that were not the standard B or C cup that is Jordan and so finding a bra became a major drama. I bought any bra I could find. But they had to be functional and functionality didn’t always come with form and style. But there will be bras I will never forget, my flowery Hawaiian bra that I bought because it was so colorful. My strapless push up bra that made a shelf out of my breasts and brought them all the way up to my neck, the comfortable cotton ones that had very thin straps and I could wear under tank tops. And then there was the satin black one that made me feel so sexy.

My relationship with each of my bras depends on its color, shape, size and use. I have a whole range of them. There are some that I have in every color imaginable including teal! I love my breasts and my bras, sometimes I wish I can go with out one. Will I ever get the courage to let these babies roam free with out any support, who knows. Until then this woman will need her support system in all its colors, shapes and sizes.