I had just emerged from the chaotic traffic of Tehran’s Fajr overpass, the staccato sound of car horns adding to the mayhem. The guy in the car next to me sounded his horn every few seconds to attract my attention. Out of habit, I ignored it, pretending not to hear. What did this guy want? I was not in the mood to deal with another irritating man who finds it entertaining to annoy female drivers. It happens all the time. And it makes no difference whether the woman behind the wheel is alone or not.
I inched ahead through the traffic jam, but the car and its honking driver did not disappear. Finally, I turned my head. The man, who was driving a Kia Pride, was middle-aged, had an unkempt beard and was wearing a white shirt. He seemed happy to have attracted my attention. Smiling, he signaled for me to cover my head. He could not hear me shout “get lost!” but my hand gestures made it clear. I did not touch my headscarf, which had slipped down my shoulders. My friend, who was in the car with me, became agitated and turned to the man and shouted aggressively, “What do you want?” He could not hear, but her red face, raised eyebrows and angry gestures spoke volumes. I told her to calm down and ignore him. The car moved on, but now I began arguing with my friend.
“Why are you reacting?” I asked.
“Why are you not reacting?” she snapped back.
An Ongoing Problem
Harassment on the streets of Tehran is nothing new, but its impact never diminishes. It's a nagging, persistent irritant that never goes away. It takes many shapes, from silent stares to verbal or physical abuse. I don’t think there’s any type of harassment that I have not encountered on the streets of Tehran. From the first day I ever stepped outside, Tehran has been a like a School of Harassment Studies for me. Little by little, I have learned to cope with it. Experience has taught me to treat the culprit with silence, to completely ignore him. But the argument with my friend prompted me to rethink my approach – and to see how other women cope.
I recently met a woman called Akram at a party. She told me about her experience on the metro. In Tehran, the last two cars of trains are reserved for women only, but, if they are accompanied by a man or the cars are relatively empty, women can choose to sit in other compartments. On one occasion, Akram was traveling in one of these cars when a man began to openly stare at her. “On the one hand, I wanted to warn him off,” she said. “On the other, I did not want to attract attention. As bad luck would have it, the seat next to me became available. He sat down next to me and tried everything he could to rub up against me. Finally a boy noticed and told him to stop; the man protested, denying that he’d done anything wrong. But the result was the same, creating a situation I had tried to avoid. The man moved away, not uttering a word, but by then, we had attracted so much attention that I felt uncomfortable and got off a stop earlier than planned.”
I told Akram about the argument I’d had with my friend. “For a while,” she said, “I was adamant that I must protest every act and teach every perpetrator manners. I believed that if I did not react, things would never be set right. But then, eventually, I was worn out. I was arguing with someone on the streets every single day.”
“I confronted men who harassed me too,” said Maedeh, another woman at the party. “I didn’t care about the reactions of others, about whether they would take my side or not. But it exhausted me, too. I started wearing headphones and listening to loud music so that I wouldn’t be able to hear their obscene jokes.”
When women experience harassment, they often choose to remain silent, finding this to be the best way of discouraging such behavior: the man is denied the satisfaction of knowing he’s had an impact. But this tactic is not always successful, especially when it comes to women driving on Tehran’s streets and highways. In some cases, this silence can lead to the harassment being intensified and can result in danger, even endangering the woman's life.
“Even if you roll down the window and tell them to leave you alone, it doesn’t end there,” says Nazanin. She’s been driving in Tehran for 10 years and is fed up with the harassment she encounters from some male drivers. “Once, on the freeway, a young man in the car next to me would not leave me alone. At first I pretended not to notice, but he kept speeding up so that he stayed next to me.” When she finally turned to look at him, he motioned with his hand that they should exchange phone numbers. Nazanin smiled politely, shook her head no and then waved him away. But he was not discouraged. He veered in front of her and slammed on the brakes. He drove alongside her, bringing his car dangerously close to hers. Eventually he gave up and pulled away. “It made me so nervous that my knees were shaking for hours,” Nazanin said.
In a discussion on Google+, one woman posted that when she ignored a man who asked her if she was single, he began driving in “an insane way”, turning his lights on and off and sounding the car’s horn repeatedly. “I was a little frightened and thought: how can I get rid of this mad man? I was afraid I would hit a pedestrian. So I put a ring on my finger and shouted that I was married and that he should leave me alone.” Despite this, the man followed her to her office. She was afraid he might even follow her in to the building.
According to these women, this kind of harassment can happen at any time of the day or night. Nazanin says she is harassed when she’s in her car so often that now when she hears a horn it does not occur to her that she might have left a door open or a fuel tank uncovered, or that she has a flat tire. She no longer associates the horn with being told anything important.
In the past, says Nazanin, there were certain streets a female driver could avoid. “Now there are no limits. I have never been harassed as much as I have this year.” According to another driver, Lila, northern Tehran used to be a safer area for driving.
Lila also suggests that there’s something even more complicated going on. “Time was when the model of car would indicate social class,” she says. “Not any more. Now it only shows how much money you have.” In the past, the type of car a woman drove might determine the type of harassment she encountered. Now women are hassled, she says, “no matter what you are wearing, no matter what you are driving, no matter what time it is or what part of the town you are driving through.”
What Helps Women Feel Safe?
In 2012, a study by the Tehran University of Social Sciences reported that 62 per cent of Tehrani women chose to confront verbal taunts with silence. The study took into account specific neighborhoods, the amount of time that women spent outside the home, marital status and the level of parental involvement and guidance. It found that, more than anything, a woman’s sense of safety depended on both the neighborhood she was in – those living in northern Tehran felt safer – and the amount and type of parental guidance she’d received in her formative years.
More than 72 per cent of women who took part in the study responded to being inappropriately stared at by remaining silent; 62 per cent chose to be silent after being verbally abused; and about 12 per cent did not speak up after being touched or even groped by strangers.
This kind of harassment, which takes place across Tehran on a daily basis, is set to continue. It’s unlikely that any government agency will claim responsibility and tackle the issue. Women have been forced to take matters into their own hands. They share strategies for coping and share their experiences on a Facebook page that has been set up to combat the problem. The situation is so dire and widespread, it begs the question: what can men who don’t behave like this do to help? Because verbal and physical abuse has become so commonplace, it’s sometimes easy to forget that there are plenty of responsible and respectful men around.