Every day I take a stroll on my way to work. From Tehran’s bustling Vanak Square, buzzing with traffic and commuters, to Jordan Street, a popular two-way avenue parallel to Valiasr, Tehran’s main artery. This is the heart of north Tehran, where cabs leave at every hour of the day and night. Adjacent to Jordan is Gandhi Street, boasting brand new shopping malls and western-style cafes.
I take a small, relatively quiet street lined with the offices of insurance brokers and doctors. Tall trees, planted at irregular intervals, shield me from the blazing sun. Just a few metres away from the honking, throbbing melody of the city, Sanaei Street is charming.
Save for the relentless sexual harassment.
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.
In the end, it makes little difference: the way those words are tossed at me in the air, with a peculiar expression on the guy’s face, sleek eyes and upper lip slightly turned up, that is part of universal language. I can only guess he is commenting on my outfit or my body, inviting me to his home or just calling me a whore. Verbal aggression does not need even rough translation. This is the most basic form of bestial communication.
And other times, it’s more than that. I’ve had numerous instances of men following me in their car on my daily walk, chatting me up, trying to convince me to get in.
Once it happened in Velenjak, an affluent and quiet neighbourhood in northern Tehran. We were four women, when a man in a car started stalking us. No matter how much we cursed him or ignored him, he continued his pursuit for more than ten minutes until we decided to enter a café. Cars are not the only means of locomotion for hunters: scooters, mopeds, motorbikes make the chase even more flexible.
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.”
Nor did changing her clothing solve the problem. “I believed wearing a chador would protect me,” she says. “But one day, I witnessed other women wearing chadors being harassed. I realised that whatever I wore, men would still chase me, just because I am woman.”
Aisha, a 23-year old chemistry student, explains: “Girls and boys are separated from primary school to the end of high school. They never have a chance to interact and when they suddenly do, they can’t just make normal conversation. It’s like any interaction is implicitly on sexual territory.”
I often wonder what goes through the heads of these men. Is it the pure pleasure of the game? Or is there an actual expectation that catcalls or stalking will yield results?
“I remember when I was younger, young boys and teenagers used to catcall and follow us just to meet girls,” says Aisha. “Because we live in a society where there is no space for men and women to meet and communicate freely, they took to the streets. At first girls liked it, they took it as a compliment, but after a while, it became a problem. Boys and men openly expressing their sexual desire made us feel insecure and exposed, and there was nowhere to escape it.”
This is an argument I’ve heard many times from men here. Driving by, whistling, catcalling, inviting her to get in: this is how men ‘pick up’ women. In the absence of bars, clubs or any place to socialise, streets, parks and public transport become the public playground for flirting.
Except that sexual harassment is not flirting. It’s more like hunting, with the whole city becoming a giant hunting ground. 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.”
Sitting by oneself in a park or on a bench is seen as an open invitation. Lucille, a 20-year old French student who recently came to Iran, tells me a story: “Once, I was peacefully sitting under the shade of a tree in a park when a man asked me if it was okay for him to sit next to me. I was surprised he even asked, and thought he genuinely didn’t want me to feel uncomfortable about him being there. I was dead wrong. As soon as I said yes, he sat down and started pressing me with thousands of questions and asking for my number. I told him I wanted to be left alone but he didn’t stop. Eventually I got up and left.”
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.
The irony of a system that goes to great lengths to “protect women’s bodies” is that while harassers are acting freely, stalking and groping under the eyes of all, the moral police is arresting women for “bad hijab”, skimpy manteaus or tight leggings.
In the same Vanak Square where I face regular catcalling and stalking, the moral police routinely apprehends women for immodest clothing. The sexual predation right under their eyes seems of no concern to them.
There is, however, one thing a woman can do to avoid sexual harassment. The magical wand to ward off men is simple: another man. “You absolutely don’t get the same kind of unwanted attention,” says Aisha. “It’s as if a man is a weapon to defend yourself. It’s a deterrence mechanism. It’s assumed he ‘owns’ you, as your relative, boyfriend or even just a neighbour, so no-one is allowed to bother or touch you.”
I’ve noticed it too: whenever I am escorted by a male, I suddenly become the invisible being I yearn to be. “Basically, a woman shouldn’t walk in the street without male protection,” rages Sahar. “If she walks alone, it means that she is looking ‘for it’. This is a society made by and for men.”
So what do men have to say?
“I think that most men who are hanging out in the streets have no understanding of the implications of their actions,” says Lucille. “They probably don’t have a clue that calling out women and staring at them and whistling qualifies as sexual harassment.”
When I ask male friends, I face a range of reactions: embarrassment (usually expressed in tactics to change the subject), justification (“this is not harassment, but flirting”), and recognition (very rarely). When I push harder and confront them with the reality of the psychological burden borne by Iranian women, my insistence is mostly met with blank stares or denial.
Women also prefer to remain silent most of the time. “This is still taboo in our society,” complains Aisha. “We hardly discuss it, even with close friends.”
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.
And there is a surprising, even chilling, paradox. As we hide every part of our body short of our faces and hands, sexual harassment does not decrease: it increases. It’s open season for hunting, all year round.