By Dana Jaf
The passport I gave to the U.K. immigration officer at Heathrow is second to none in the list of worst passports in the world. Basically, I need a visa to get out from Iraq to anywhere and everywhere on planet earth. I stayed one week in London before collecting my bags and heading towards a town which is the exact opposite of London; Durham, to study for a Master’s in anthropology.
As a newcomer to this land, I found it impossible not to try to understand the society and to compare this society to my own.
One major difference between my society, a conservative Muslim Kurdish society with strict traditions related to marriage and sex, and an open society like that of Britain, is the topic of relationships between men and women. Living in college and seeing the normal access of girls and boys to each other in a very normal and natural way allowed me to see this aspect more fully.
Coming from a society where all unmarried boys and girls, that includes me as well, are expected to be virgins, and sometimes the very public mention of topics related to sexuality is considered impolite or even taboo, what I saw was new and interesting. My country has a high rate of sexual harassment and I had always believed that this was caused by sexual repression (data from a Muslim country like Egypt shows there is no difference between girls with or without the hijab when it comes to being sexually harassed). Seeing young girls and boys talking, sitting, and hugging normally and also sleeping together with no feeling of fear or shame was a kind of confirmation that if people were allowed to live their sex life the way they want, then sexual harassment will be an issue of the past. While I made a conscious decision to resist the temptations of the freshers’ week and stay a virgin, I was happy to see a hypothesis I had, come true.
However, it took very few days to understand that the normal relationship between boys and girls I was witnessing from outside was only a small part of the picture as articles one after another on rape, consent, and harassment proliferated in Durham’s student newspapers. Further to this, knowing about a case of attempted rape of a girl I had met in my first week made me rethink my constructed model of sexual relationships.
The question was, if sexual repression leads to boys’ expressing their desires in violent ways and exploiting any opportunity to reach the body of the other sex, why in a place where sexual freedom is at its ultimate level, sexual harassment is still a problem.
One of the major claims made by some Europeans with anti-refugee discourse is that these refugees are sexually repressed and once they reach the freedom of the West, they attack, harass and rape the beautiful Western women. It is true that many boys in sexually repressed societies such as mine has sexual fantasies about the West and that may lead to abhorrent acts as well, however, that alone does not answer the question of the roots and reasons of sexual harassment. The fact that a heated debate at a university like Durham which has a majority of white British students is sexual harassment tells us that the causes underlying sexual harassment are too complicated to be seen as a topic for scapegoating a particular community or way of life.
One thing I appreciate though is the ability of people, including victims of sexual harassment, to speak up and openly talk about it. This is something victims of sexual harassment in sexually repressed societies do not have. Everything happens in secret; the assault and the agonies of the victim. An open society should not fear debating its problems openly. Sexual harassment and rape are things which should not exist on a university campus, and if they do, it means there is something hugely wrong with how things are understood and done. I am happy to be gaining some experience and training as an anthropology student to understand this question and other questions directly related to culture and society better.
Photograph by Jpatokal via Creative Commons