A woman wearing a tight long-sleeved white dress that rests just above her knees was cat-called, followed, and filmed at a mall in Kuwait over the weekend. Like many incidents of harassment, be it verbal or physical, the video shot was proudly shared online via an Arab page known for sharing controversial news on Twitter.
The Avenues mall, where the harassment took place, had been reportedly battling this specific issue; news last month made it sound like it had succeeded at shutting down harassers. "The security checkpoint at Avenues Mall is exerting tremendous efforts to control dozens of harassers and outlaws daily," Arab Times Online wrote in September. "The move comforted individuals and families as they can now enjoy their time at the mall, away from any form of disturbance or harassment."
On Oct.10, the mall hosted an event targeted at women, with focus points related to women empowerment, their role in the business and community, and their health.
But maybe the men following the woman in "revealing clothes" - as people have said - don't look like outlaws and harassers and maybe they actually care about women empowerment. Maybe they look decent enough, come from wealthy families, are educated, and look like they're just at the mall for some shopping or fun with friends. Though, you know, it's easy to lose track of who you are once you see a woman in a dress.
The incident, as usual, went viral on Twitter. The way it was headlined is a true reflection of the troubling victim-blaming rhetoric that unfortunately permeates the patriarchal societies we live in. Instead of calling out the harassers who gave the woman no personal space, many posts featuring the video shamed her for wearing "revealing" clothes.
"Scandalous outfit in the Avenues," one post read when it really should've been: Woman harassed at The Avenues mall, period.
The footage garnered polarizing opinions on social media. Some people said that if the woman had dressed prudishly, all of this could've been avoided. Harassment knows no dress code, but some people like to think it does.
On the other hand, a bunch of online users - gifted with logic they use while assessing such cases - have deemed people's reaction to what the woman was wearing "none of anyone's business." Some encouraged the victim to take legal action against those who attacked her and filmed her without her permission.
Sexual harassment is a major problem for women across the region, an unfortunate fact to state, but a fact nonetheless.
Last year, two women were sexually harassed by a group of men at a beach in Bahrain and, of course, they were blamed for getting in the pool with men. Not only were they verbally harassed, but also filmed without their consent and touched inappropriately. Incidents like this one are common in Saudi Arabia, where tens have been arrested for publicly harassing women in recent months. They're also prevalent in the UAE, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and several other Arab nations.
Why have Arab initiatives failed at curbing sexual harassment?
Though several countries have been passing anti-sexual harassment laws, there has still been a rise in the number of cases and that's only counting the ones reported. Women's rights activists say there are thousands of incidents that go unreported every single year due to the social stigma attached to the issue and the lack of support for victims.
The double standards that exist in misogynistic societies across the region further add to the problem by constantly playing the victim-blaming game or by downplaying cases. For decades, these communities have normalized the silencing of victims by convincing women harassment is somehow their fault, instigated by something they said, wore, or did.
The real fight against sexual abuse can only begin when these false notions are shattered and when the blame automatically falls on the harasser rather than the victim.