I Defended My Harasser from Racism and I Don’t Know How to Feel

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This week the Not Your Habibti Typewriter Project takes Rome. Featured in two different social and cultural spaces, the event is opening up conversations I had never anticipated. I was visiting the first of the two spaces to get a feel for how I wanted to set up my project when I met the two girls moderating a discussion panel to take place later on.

They were the kind of girls who are young and energetic yet teeming with the thoughts of curious and maturing minds. Talking over a glass of wine, our conversation inevitably turned to the topic of sexual harassment. One story in particular floored me:

 

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As new-wave international feminist movements grow, we’ve heard stories of sexual harassment and gender-based oppression from all over the world. Sexual harassment is nothing new but what happens when it’s paired with xenophobia? What happens when we don’t know if we can be angry with our harasser because of the racism he experiences? What happens when we have to defend our own harasser from a racist trying to defend you? In the matter of a few seconds, one woman experienced assault and witnessed racism at the hands of two different men in two very different positions of society. 

With war and tragedy continuously unfolding across the world, European countries are receiving an influx of refugees from Syria, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya, Tunisia and so many more countries.  As someone hailing from an occupied people that also have their own socio-cultural issues to address, I understand the confusion of defending a person’s right to life and happiness yet holding them accountable for the social injustices they themselves have contributed to. 

When this girl told me this story, I felt strangely vindicated because it gave me the words I needed to both unpack my own experiences and to understand the intersectionality two very different serious issues in the world: gender-based oppression and xenophobia. We can’t help but feel her confusion at wanting to defend two different social injustices that were at odds in one moment. When the first man was harassing her, she only knew she was being wronged. To her, race aside, the man was hurting her. Why didn’t the second man feel the same way? To the second man, she wasn’t being sexually harassed by a man but attacked by an immigrant—the other

As the second man was trying to defend her, it may be all too easy to forgive him and brush his racism under the rug. And as the first man was attacked with racism, we may easily brush his harassment under the rug. These are factors that society uses to attack the other and defend their own—and we need to understand them in order to ask for social justice across all positions of society. 

When this girl made her defender apologize to her attacker, was she being dramatic? Was she distracted from the real problem? What was the real problem? Was one problem more important than other and if so, how do we know which one is which? Was she able to show both men what they had done wrong? Is it even her job to teach them anyways?

These questions only scratch the surface of these issues and they’re questions we should all be asking and trying to answer. My job isn’t to tell anyone what to think but rather contribute to the collective toolbox they need to think on their own. This girl’s story has unleashed a world of questions for—perhaps more questions than answers and that’s totally okay. As the questions continue coming, the rule remains the same: When I see injustice taking place in society, I need to try and understand why it’s happening and how I can contribute to healing the wounds. 

This story is a powerful one for me because it awakened me to the complexity and interconnectedness of human rights. In other words, gender-based oppression is connected to racism which is connected to humanitarian crises and so on and so forth. Choosing to understand one while turning a blind eye to the other may only contribute to the greater tragedies in the world. Understanding them all means understanding the world with an open mind and open heart—it’s an understanding that says: we’re all struggling so how can we work together to improve our society from every aspect. It’s an understanding that I’m ready to keep thinking about and sharing. 

 
Yasmeen MjalliComment