When Security is Sexist

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.

Sexual Violence is a Global Epidemic – And none of us are immune

Recently, my social media feeds were  overwhelmed with posts about this CNN iReport story by Michaela Cross. The piece recounts her experiences with sexual harassment as a Western woman in India during her Study Abroad term. From inappropriate stares to uninvited physical approaches, most of what she describes I can relate to as a Western woman who recently returned from India after a year living in the City of Bangalore.

I, too, felt the eyes on my body every time I stepped out in India. I was approached by men I didn’t invite into my space, men who refused to leave, men who got uncomfortably close. I was groped and followed. I was the object of crude comments. Every time I wanted to go out, I felt restricted because of my sex. In India, the term ‘eve-teasing’ is used to describe public sexual harassment of women – and it happens all the time.

For every negative experience though, there were ten positive ones. My time in India was marked more by wonderful encounters than by negative ones – but sometimes, the negative experiences leave a deeper mark. Another University of Chicago student responded to Cross’ account from a different perspective. In a very powerful and important piece, she highlights not only another side of the Country, but also the danger of attributing this behavior exclusively to India.

Sexual violence isn’t India’s disease – it’s a global epidemic.

While in India, I was also aware that what I was experiencing was nothing compared to the harassment, violence, discrimination and danger that millions of Indian women and girls face every single day.  I knew that should something happen, I had options. I could go to the police or to my embassy. I could leave, and never look back. But the Indian women who deal with this every day – what are their options? Many of them are poor and from lower castes, without any opportunities for escape or justice. Many endure violence at the hands of their husbands or other male family members daily. Many lose their lives to this violence – for no other reason than being born female. This happens today, tomorrow and beyond, to thousands of Indian women who never make the headlines of CNN, BBC or Al Jazeera – Women who don’t have the option of sharing their experiences through blogs.

Infograph: World Health Organization
Infograph: World Health Organization

Even though I had options, leaving India would not have solved the problem because this doesn’t happen only in India. I’ve experienced and witnessed sexual harassment in every country I’ve visited. While sexual violence takes different forms in different places, it is still a global phenomenon that no country is free from. Sexual violence is not an Indian issue, or a cultural issue, or a religious issue. This is a universal problem that every woman is exposed to in her life, regardless of where she is born, the color of her skin, where she lives, and where she travels. I’ve been groped in Finland, followed in America, sexually harassed in bars, on streets and in public spaces in Brazil, Kenya, Sweden and Estonia. No country gets to lift itself on a pedestal with regards to this issue. I believe Cross’ experiences were traumatizing, and I think she did the right thing by writing about her experiences – but I also think that we have to be careful not to demonize an entire country or culture.

We have to condemn the behavior itself, no matter where it happens, no matter who the target is. We have to send a message that no amount of sexual harassment is acceptable, whether it is verbal or physical, and that there are no excuses. We have to work towards a world where every woman and girl has a voice and options – where no victim of sexual violence has to stay silent, or remain in a violent situation because they don’t have the same choices as others.

Many victims of sexual harassment or abuse never come forward, and it must have taken a lot of courage for Cross to share her story. I hope the discussion can now move beyond India and beyond focusing on one particular country. Sexual harassment happens in every single corner of the world, to every single type of women and girls – and we must never become blind to it, or accepting of it. Not in India, not in the United States, not in Finland – not anywhere.

FINAL Featured image: UN Women