Taking the Bus Alone
Day 48: Tuesday December 3, 2019
I touch the rough hairs at the back of my neck. When I got a haircut on Sunday, Robert the hairdresser used a shaver. I smiled and winced a little as he ran the machine over my nape, wondering, “Is this what men feel?”
After I was sexually harassed around the age of nine, I wanted to become a boy. I wasn’t even aware of my girlhood until that man, our neighbor, the age of my grandfather, touched my legs and non-breasts. After that, and especially in my early teens, I wanted to have a boy’s step, a body that, from my little girl’s perspective, no men on the street whistled at, no men on the street described what they wanted to do with, no men on buses tried to brush up against. I wanted to run away from my body. I wore very loose shirts, and my favorite was the Chicago Bulls t-shirt. Perhaps I wanted to become a bull. I played basketball, always placing my long hair inside my cap. Once, when Mom came to pick me up at school, she didn’t recognize me. I’d climbed the school wall to get the ball that had fallen in the nearby olive grove. From the top of the wall, hair inside my cap, I waved at her. She didn’t initially wave back. I still remember that moment, how happy I was that even my mother thought I was a boy.
Last night, I touched the rough hair on my nape nervously as my husband and I watched TV. From our living room in Dubai, we watched one of Joe Maalouf’s guests on MTV, a man accused of sexual assault: Marwan Habib. I’d read the posts about him. I hate that his name is Marwan, like my husband, like the name of the only boy I trusted with my body when we were young.
“Can you believe this?” I asked my Marwan.
“He’s saying he’s not an assaulter because he was on the volleyball team? What the hell?” my husband said. He shook his head and commented on the man’s untruthful eyes.
My Marwan’s eyes are kind. The kindest. We’ve been dating since we were 12, and his friendship taught me not to always mistrust the male body. His love has been teaching me, since that age, to slowly love my own body again, though this has been a struggle.
There have been many social media testimonies against Marwan Habib, after he led the athletic “battalion” in the Civil Parade on Independence Day. A fifteen-year old said he hit on her and kept following her during the thawra. Other stories mention him following women into bathrooms and sexually harassing them, forcibly kissing women, or sitting uninvited next to women in pubs and talking dirty to them. I’ve seen some of these online and on Instagram. This thawra has been about speaking up, and it’s about time we talk more urgently about sexual assault and the shaming of victims.
When Joe Maalouf asks women to call MTV and give their testimonies, only one calls. She speaks in English and says Marwan raped her. Joe keeps urging other women to call, as Marwan insists the names of the women who spoke against him be revealed. It’s part of the shaming game, isn’t it? To name the woman who claims to have been assaulted or raped. To merely name her would be to call her names, to ask the questions: What was she wearing? Where was she? Was she drinking? Why had she agreed to give him her number or go up to his apartment? As I watch Marwan ask for names, I remember the video of the women activists in Chile: how they were blindfolded, how they moved and chanted in unison. How they said, “It’s not my fault, nor where I was, nor what I wore.” How they turned the accusation from themselves to the entire system that has failed them: “The rapist is you. It’s the cops, the judges, the state, the president.” I couldn’t stop replaying that video.
How powerful it was to watch these women exist in a public space and accuse the patriarchy. One of the feminist thawra chants in Lebanon, sung to the tune of “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain,” is “badna nsa2it il abawiyyeh badda tfil:” “we want bring down the patriarchy, it will go.” When I went to Lebanon on the weekend of November 8, I joined the secular march and we repeated this tune against the patriarchy, sectarianism, homophobia, and transphobia. Never in my life did I think it would be possible to utter this out loud on the streets of Lebanon. I noticed how relatively safe I felt during the protests. I say “relatively” because I’ve learned to always be cautious, no matter what, in public spaces. I’ve learned to always shut my female body and be as invisible as possible.
But this thawra has made the women visible. This thawra is being lifted by the women. The woman who kicked the thug in the gut. The woman who fed the revolutionaries. The woman who ran away from the thug as he chased her with a stick. The woman who lit the candle, who banged on pots, who kissed her lover on the street, who held on to the young man as the police tried to take him away, who formed a human shield with other women, who marched across what used to be civil war demarcation lines carrying flowers. The women who would march on Saturday to protest against sexual assault, doing the calling out themselves by naming the assaulter, reclaiming their bodies by chanting: “A woman’s right to own her body / A woman’s right to speak for herself / A woman’s right to orgasm / A woman’s right to abort.” The women who would enact a Chile-inspired performance in four days. And now, the woman who’s made the phone call, addressing Marwan Habib and telling him he raped her.
We must overcome the shame that comes with rape and sexual assault. I watch lawyer Kareem Majbour tell Marwan he will file a lawsuit against him, that he needs to understand women’s bodies are their own. I also watch Joe comment on a security camera video of Marwan putting ice down a woman’s pants in a pub, saying this kind of thing happens in these places. Joe then adds he didn’t realize Marwan was actually putting ice down the woman’s pants, but still, his initial reaction makes me think how even men who are trying to be allies need to stop normalizing such behavior. There is no “normal’ form of harassment; any attempt at touching or talking sexually about a woman’s body without her permission should be inacceptable. I hope the thawra builds better laws to protect us and help us speak up. Even as a little girl who didn’t realize what that man did to her, I felt ashamed to tell my mother. I didn’t have a word for what he did, but I knew it was wrong. That’s why I removed his hands, kicked him, ran away to the kitchen where his wife was and stayed there. It took me some time to tell my mother; why did I feel responsible? As she held her keys to open the door of our apartment, I looked up at her and said I had something to tell her, but I didn’t want her to be upset with me. My mother paused; I think she saw my terror. After I told her, she immediately said, “This is not your fault at all. But we mustn’t tell your dad, because if he knows, he will kill that man and go to jail.” I nodded, agreed to silence.
I now tell my Marwan to never say to our girls he’d physically harm whoever hurts them. Our daughters need to be taught how to defend themselves and speak, speak, speak, so whoever might hurt them is taken to court. I hope no one ever does, and I hope I stand by my words if that (God forbid) happens. Those who love us need to help us take down a system that shames us and doesn’t take us seriously, instead of feeding into this system with toxic macho behavior.
I want fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, cousins, friends, to stop telling us they’d kill those who harm us, because if they do, we will silence ourselves in order to protect them from harm. Thus, we’d be doubly silenced: by those who harass us and by those who love us.
I stopped wanting to be a boy around the age of sixteen, but I kept my fear of public spaces. When a man touched my thigh on the bus from Tripoli to Beirut once, I cried for days and stopped taking the bus alone since. As we came back late from the protests on that Saturday in November, I asked my friends to accompany me, refused to walk alone, even in Hamra. The fear is still there. As I look at social media posts about harassment, I’m triggered again, and I don’t feel like being touched, even by my husband. This makes me realize I’m still working on not associating sex with that traumatic moment.
But I’m also stronger now, more vocal, more confident in my body, and perhaps more importantly, ready to write about this. Ready to tell my daughters about what happened to me, even if my nine-year-old is scared. I teach them the words: sexual harassment. Their father listens as I speak, and he doesn’t say, “If someone ever touches you, I’ll kill him.” I still love the comfort of loose clothes, and I wear fitted dresses whenever I feel like it. Though I enjoy touching the rough hairs on my neck, I don’t want to be a man. I want to exist in my woman body. I want to exist as loud as I want or as quiet as I want in my woman body. Though my strength-in-progress has been years in the making, the thawra is telling me, is telling us: “I see you. I got your back.” When I’m in Lebanon again, I will take the bus. Alone.