I was surprised, and yet not surprised, to be flagged as a high-security risk on my latest trip to the United States from the Middle East. I’ve received the infamous red “SSSS” stamp on my boarding pass before, the four letters that stand for “secondary security screening selection,” and I’ve gone through finger prints and pictures and pat-downs before getting on a plane. Resigned to the scrutiny, I usually don’t give it much thought.
But this time the secondary screening was more invasive, more intrusive, more dehumanizing. Was it that the Trump administration heightened precautions and narrowed definitions of rights? Was it that someone, somewhere disapproves of the patchwork of stamps from conflict-ridden places in my passport? Was it that I was traveling alone and therefore I, with my long hair pulled up in a bun and dangling earrings, seemed like an easy way to reach a quota of people screened?
Whatever it was, I was pulled aside for my bag to be searched by a man who insisted on calling me “girl.” Out of all of the suspicious items – including a laptop and two cell phones that would have provided a mountain of information were I actually a threat – this man focused on my toiletry bag. After smearing my lipstick on the table and blowing onto my powder, he smirked as he unwrapped each of my menstrual pads, ran his hands over them and then held them up for his male colleagues.
Let that simmer. He unwrapped and touched each and every pad and held them up for his male colleagues.
This was supposed to embarrass me. I didn’t flinch because working with adolescent girls means I talk about menstruation as comfortably as most people order lunch. So instead I stood there, responding to his smirk with a cold glare, as he played a sex-intimidation game that had no place in an airport, no place during entry to the United States, no place anywhere. After having spread bacteria over something that was once sanitary, he ordered the more invasive “body search.” The woman who ran her hands up my bra was apologetic, but the men who looked on were not.
This experience was an infuriating reminder that women’s bodies – and all bodies of people who have been othered – remain battlegrounds, sites of search and seizure, sites of exploitation and sites of terrorism. If we differ from the socially constructed norm, we reflect something that must be checked, controlled and owned. For women and girls, our bodies have been made sites of customized-by-culture abuse and exploitation.
In the United States, intimate partner violence makes the most dangerous place for a woman her own home. In Jordan, victims of rape are imprisoned if not killed by family in the name of so-called “honor.” In China, there are more men and boys than women and girls due to sex-selective abortion that eliminates girls before they are born. And in airports, check-points and other spaces in-between, women can be touched and groped and fondled under the guise of security.
This airport encounter is more than crude behavior; this is one of many transgressions so intertwined with daily life that it is difficult to tease it out as a transgression. It doesn’t seem horrifying in that this kind of thing happens all of the time. And as I tackle the big and bold issues impacting marginalized girls, I fall into the pattern of accepting the transgressions in my own life as both inevitable and relatively harmless.
But they are not inevitable. And they are not harmless. These small acts violate human dignity and reflect a larger, systemic sexism and misogyny that is directly connected to those big and bold issues.
I always seem to have a solution in my work. I can talk about solutions to end child marriage and strategies to curtail trafficking for hours, but I can be speechless when it comes to everyday sexism and misogyny. We’ve named the big issues, we’ve shed light on them and we’ve developed (somewhat of) a consensus that issues like child marriage and trafficking must be addressed. But it is somehow still OK to catcall, harass, coercive and intimidate girls and women, especially when done by those in power, because these issues are more nebulous and are made out to be benign.
The conclusion I can draw is that silence normalizes; words disrupt. And so we must speak loudly and boldly to disrupt the normalcy of sexual intimidation, coercion and abuse. These nebulous issues must be given a shape by our words. We cannot fight the threat that exists in the dark, but we certainly can fight the one we’re shining the light on.