The desire to become invisible

But at least modesty cultures are very respectful of women.

Just kidding.

Sometimes it is just stares. As I am walking down the street, I see him coming across me. He is several metres when I am already cringing. I lower my stare, or look away.

I want to close my manteau – the medium-length, light jacket worn by some Iranian women instead of chador – to avoid his snooping glare, but it’s too late. As I walk past him, I feel his piercing eyes looking for my breasts under my thick cloak, sizing up my figure with acute intensity. Riveted to my body, they follow me up until I feel them burning my back as he is already behind me. There isn’t even the slightest pretence of hiding: the ogling is unabashed, both nonchalant and full of aplomb.

Every so often, there are sounds. As he walks by, he turns his head towards me and slams his tongue against his palate. Or kisses the air loudly. There are so many shades of whistling, hissing, smacking, licking, puffing that I am amazed at the capacities of the human mouth. Sometimes it comes from behind me: a hiss directly in my ear. Sometimes it’s a last-second move as we walk past each other, like a snake suddenly sticking out its tongue. Every time, it is the same hideous expression of unhindered lust sending shivers through my spine.

Oftentimes, it is words too. Fortunately, my Persian is not good enough to grasp the profanity thrown in my face. Or maybe I don’t want to know anyway.

Yeh he’s probably not saying “welcome to Iran, I hope you have a pleasant walk.”

Sexual harassment in public places is a reality of every day in Iran. At first, I thought my foreign looks and my somewhat liberal style (vivid colours, open manteau, scarf thrust to the back of my head) made me a target. But when I opened up to friends, I realised this is a ubiquitous reality for young women of all styles and backgrounds.

“Growing in a Muslim country where the hijab is not mandatory, I have always been told: the hijab is there to protect women from men’s desire, because our body is ‘awra’ (intimate parts of the body that should be covered) that can spread ‘fitna’ (chaos) among men,” says Sahar, a 26-year old non-Iranian who has been studying in Tehran for a year. “But then I came to Iran, where hijab is mandatory, and I am still harassed in the streets. Men aggressively stare at me, talk to me, call me names. I feel naked, and worthless.”

Intelligent design – in which one sex hates the other sex and won’t leave it alone. What a way to live.

For women, walking in the street can become an excruciating, fearful experience.

“I feel deprived of one of my favourite things in Iran: walking alone,” says Sahar. “Every day, when I leave home, I wish for one thing: to be left alone. Because of this, I started taking cabs, even for a five-minute ride, just to avoid these encounters.”

The hunting happens everywhere in broad daylight, with the tacit approval of all – including the very authorities supposed to protect women. There is no risk in this hunt.

The feeling of incapacitation and helplessness for women is overwhelming. “It gives you a feeling of powerlessness because it seems that, since they aren’t physically attacking you, you don’t have a right to do anything to them,” says Lucille.

I remember that feeling so well in Paris as a teenager. I would tell them to leave me alone and it did no good – it was so frustrating and infuriating – as if I had no right to myself, no right to walk around, no right to be left alone, no right to tell men to stop intruding on me.

My sense is also that these daily interactions have become so habitual that most women don’t bother to bring it up, unless there is a special instance of outright groping for instance.

“Should we disappear? Should women just disappear?” asks Sahar.

This is a feeling many women have shared with me: the desire to become invisible, to suppress one’s physical being in order to avoid the intrusive, defiling daily looks, hisses, words and gropes.

Just to be able to move about in the world unmolested.


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