Not Your Habibti: Bard College
On December 4th, Not Your Habibti, a socially engaged art-project designed to share women and girls’ stories of sexual harassment, made its way to Bard College in Abu Dis, Palestine.
If you’re reading this, I’m sure you’ve heard about Not Your Habibti by now. You’ve probably also heard about Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Louis CK, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, and the countless other names which blur together now. And I’d be willing to bet that you’ve got a few stories of your own that you may or may not have shared in the midst of this international awakening.
When Not Your Habibti made its first appearance at Clock Circle in Ramallah, the project was met with hesitation by most of the women I asked to participate. Some women told me they had never been sexually harassed. Others told me it only happened in other parts of the world. Some even told me that men were the only victims of sexual harassment. On that day, I asked 200 women to share their stories with me and only 34 came forward.
So, when Not Your Habibti made its second debut at Bard College, I set the bar low. With my typewriter set-up at the entrance to the college, a handful of girls stood lingered around the table. Wide-eyed and shy, they quietly told me they had nothing to say. I smiled politely and waited.
Finally, a young woman sat in the chair across from me and started to tell her story. I typed quickly as her words of a heartbreaking experience came flooding into the space between us. We were both remotely aware of the crowd gathered around us, hanging onto every word she said but we kept on. She had a story and I had a mission to document it.
And then the floodgates opened.
Girls sat down in pairs, some shared 2 or 3 stories each, and others hurried through campus to bring their friends over. Suddenly, everyone had a story—each girl had a lifetime of experiences to recount.
And as the stories came my way, I only typed, shared the occasional warm gaze, and asked questions to pull more details when needed. So many girls prefaced their stories with the question:
This experience is really intense...is that okay?
Each time I simply responded, tell me.
That afternoon I collected the most intimate and difficult stories of Not Your Habibti. The surprise was that the girls were smiling despite the discernable pain in their eyes. For the first time, someone wanted to know the secrets of suffering caused by the topic society had never acknowledged before now. For the first time, it wasn’t a matter of religion, honor, or respectability to share a story—it was now a matter of the freedom to move about the world safely and confidently. Opening up to me and to each other, girls started to talk about the way, in fact, they didn’t move about the world with safety or confidence. And they were tired of it.
When a young woman experiences sexual harassment or worse, the trauma rests deeply within her. It changes the way, sometimes forever, in which she carries herself, loves herself, loves others, and moves through the rest of her life. Her eyes for the world are shaded in fear, bitterness, and distrust. And when no one wants to hear her story, when there is no way to work through and release that trauma, it only grows deeper and darker within her heart.
Now, perhaps for the first time, in the wake of the tragedies behind #metoo, the childhoods robbed of innocence, and the lifetimes colored with trauma and distrust, there is a family of women standing together and spanning the globe.
That afternoon at Bard College, girls shared with me their own projects of work in women’s rights. Others thanked me for listening. Some asked me to comeback, admitting to me that talking about this issue has released them.
In the days since Not Your Habibti came into the world to start documenting stories of sexual harassment and violence, I had doubted the effectiveness of the project. Now, I can't help but burst with hope because we are finally having a conversation about the way our social structures of oppression have kept women from being the most confident, vibrant, and dynamic versions of themselves. It’s a conversation I’m ready to keep fueling.
Thank you to every young woman at Bard College who showed me that Not Your Habibti is not just a vision: it is a tangible community of women taking back the world they live in.
Below, a preview of the collection of stories shared that day.
***The rest will be included in an exhibition in the Spring.
"I was 14...
and I was on my way to school by a taxi. And before we reached the house, all of the other passengers had gotten out. So I went to pay him the fare. When I placed the money in his hand, he grabbed my hand. I was shocked, pulled my hand away, opened the door while the car was still moving, and got out. I didn't cry until I got home. I never rode a taxi again."
"I was going...
...to school in a taxi. I was still 30 minutes away from my destination when a 40 year old man got in and sat next to me. He started running his balls and I was immediately uncomfortable. Then he started trying to touch me. So I asked him what he was trying to do and he said "it's fine you're like many."
"We were in...
a very small and remote village, my friend and I. We were there to to teach the kids English. It was 4 am and my friend and I sat outside of the shower area to make sure no one disrupted her. So then, we heard someone screaming. So we went to her and asked her what happened and she told us that someone is watching her from the window. A man stuck his hand through the window of the bathroom. We tried to find out his identity but never did. To this day I'm still terrified to shower alone."
"I as in 4th grade...
A guy guy who works at the school had a tiny room with equipment. I used to be lured in and he would slide his hand over my back and rub it. At first I liked it but the next time it happened I felt that it was wrong so I stopped coming back. I never told anyone because I wasn't sure if it was wrong."
...and I arrived to Palestine in August. I'm from Russia so harassment is not a new thing for me. Before I arrived I heard so many things about the kindness and hospitality of Palestinians so I was not prepared for the sexual harassment. One day we went to the bus station and took the elevator. A bunch of guys got in and were smoking. One guy blew a cloud of smoke into my face and even though it wasn't a touch I sill felt violated."
...supposed to be your second home but I don't feel safe at all here. I was in a religion class and we started discussing the hijab. My professor said to us that a woman who doesn't wear a hijab deserves to be raped. I spoke out and told him that he is justifying a crime but he responded that the crime is showing your hair."
"My friend's uncle...
...lives in the United States. She sent to visit her family in the USA. Her uncle kept saying inappropriate things to her and touching her. Then he started sending her messages with photos of his penis and asked her to send photos of her own body. She can't say anything to anyone because she's afraid to ruin the family dynamic. And anyways no one will believe her or they might kill her for it."
"Here at college...
...the girls are thought to wear more revealing clothes than the girls at the neighboring university. Guys will come to the campus and look at the girls. One day I caught these guys taking pictures of other female students. I tried to report them but it didn't do anything. Here at my college I never feel safe, only objectified."
...my sister was going to school. A man was walking next to her on the street. He was extremely close and intentionally brushing against her arm. Then he whispered "I love pussy" over and over again. She was so afraid she didn't know how to react and started crying."