Streets and Power Dynamics: How do men and women move about/ interact with each other in the streets?
Streets tell stories of power relations among people. They tell stories about economic, political and social power. We may walk back and forth in a single street till we become familiar and unconsciously accept the power dynamics that exist without questioning how they came to be the way they are. One day, I woke up with the intention to understand how street harassment is related to power expression and actions that occur daily in public spaces that are difficult to describe as “harassment”. I thought to myself that I should take a day off and observe everyday encounters between men and women in the street. Through observations in the streets, I attempt to understand how daily street interactions and dynamics have an impact on social processes, transformation and power relations between men and women.
In my observation, I focused on the power dynamics among men and women, thus focusing on body language, how do men and women move about and interact, the intersectionality of age, race and gender and the different times of the day. My first hypothesis is that men demonstrate that they own the public through street harassment. My second hypothesis is that due to harassment, women share the streets with men, but not power. Therefore, I will be observing in what body language do men demonstrate that they own the public? What type of men are they? And how do they interact with women moving about in public areas, particularly the streets.
The observations occurred in one of Beirut main streets, Hamra street.
Why Hamra street?
- It is one of the main streets of the city of Beirut.
- It is one of the main economic hubs of Beirut.
- It is at the heart of two prestigious universities in Lebanon. (The Lebanese American University, and the American University of Beirut)
- It is a commercial district packed with hotels, apartments, coffee shops, pups and restaurants.
- It is a refuge for persecuted cultural producers, minorities and immigrants.
- Despite a series of political crises, it is filled with international business stores and brand like (Nike, Adidas, American Eagle, Starbuck, etc.) suggesting a middle-class population and a neighborhood confident of its future.
- Finally, I am a foreigner student who had lived in Lebanon for almost 6 years and particularly in Beirut, Hamra for the past 3 years.
As I first set my mind on the mode to observe for this blog, I had to find a way to defamiliarize myself and take cautious distance. Honestly, this was very tough. I lived in this area for a long while. I spent countless hours walking its streets, not just the main one. I attended cultural events, frequented café shops, clothing shops, restaurants and pups. I would say this by far was one of the main problems I encountered during the observation process.
Ready. Set. Action
The observational experience consisted of walking down the street of Hamra, sitting in one of the available benches during multiple times of the day as well as at night. As I was walking down the street, I was aware that I am a participant who may be facing encounters by strangers who might want to engage in a conversation, or perhaps wonder what I am doing. In case it was a casual encounter, I would greet and respond as well as record the story of the encounter later, however, in case people were questioning what I am doing, I would shortly explain that I am curious about Hamra street’s diversity and liveliness. Which in fact - according to the choice of site- I am to some extent.
To elaborate on the time of observation, I chose to go out during rush hour day time (12-2 pm). Reason being, some people commute in cars and service (Taxis) through Hamra during that time, some go out to meet for lunch, and some just walk either after work, or university. As for the night time, I also chose another rush hour which is (7-9 pm). Initially, I wanted to also go out and record some observations during a late hour at night, but I myself fear late night harassments. Thus, my observations are only limited to the rush hours chosen and mentioned above.
Day time Observations (12-2pm)
The street was busy, cars honing at each other, motorcycles and many passengers and beggars going up and down the main street. I noticed that no one was talking to anyone. I was also walking back and forward, slowly.
The overall image portrayed a diverse, cosmopolitan community. I could hear different accents while walking, Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian and many other foreign languages. On this specific day, I happened to hear Spanish, English and another Asian language that I could not identify. Since I am an Arab, who happened to live in an international university dorm, especially filled with Arabs from different Arab countries, I could easily distinguish what Arab accents belongs to what Arab country.
Nonetheless, everyone seemed busy and in a hurry. Women who were walking alone in particular, seemed to walk in a higher speed, compared to men walking alone. On the contrary, when walking in groups women would walk a lot slower than when walking alone.
As for service taxis and motorcycles that were filling the street, they were mainly driven by men. Some would even stick their arms out while driving. They would also scream at each other to communicate in the street. The motorcycles were going randomly up and down the street and popping out of nowhere. As for Private cars, there were as many women drivers as men.
At some point, I felt thirsty, so I stopped by a store to gets some juice to drink on my way. Then, I witnessed an incident where two women were trying to park their car on the main street. The one who was driving seemed like a middle-aged woman, and the one who stepped out of the car to help her with directions, was a much older lady. While attempting to park, plenty of old men who were around them started to give directions as well. The character of the men (old, stores owners, and Lebanese). Few seconds after, a younger man showed up to take his motorcycle that was parked in front of this parking space that this lady was trying to take. He did not interfere at all. He simply greeted the ladies by raising his hand to wave, took his motor cycle and left. Suddenly, the old lady who was giving the directions asked me to help from the front since I was standing there on the sidewalk. So, I did. The men who were there continued to shout out loud the directions, ignoring completely that either me or the other old lady were already there. It felt quite odd. As if we were invisible. However, the woman who was driving was paying attention to our instructions, since we were using signs (like sign language) instead of screaming.
One more thing that is worth mentioning in my observations of the street, is how most stores owners were standing outside of their stores, either sitting on a chair on the sidewalk, or simply standing out perhaps to welcome the customers to walk in. Some of them were holding something in their hands that looked like a rosery - a string of beads for keeping count used in the devotions/ prayers of some religions.
Night Time Observations (7-9pm)
The street was also quite busy, but less intense than the day time. The speed of the walkers was much slower. I saw heterosexual couples holding hands, hugging and walking fine. Whenever a couple would pass, the men on the sidewalk would look at the man who’s with the woman. They would not stare, they would only glimpse at the woman. However, when a woman walks alone, she would get lots of stares. In fact, I got lots of stares while walking. Also, group walks seemed a lot relaxing. For example, women who were walking with groups enjoyed the conversations, since they were talking and laughing out loud. They did not mind the street.
Nonetheless, when it comes to clothing, women clothing varied from practical jeans t-shirt and a jacket, to jeans, blouse and a headscarf, to miniskirts and t-shirts. The shoes also varied, while some felt comfortable in sneakers, others seemed to be enjoying their heels. As for men, the majority were dressed in also practical clothing that consisted of jeans and a shirt, or jeans and a hoodie.
Finally, as I was observing the coffee shops, I noticed that most of them were occupied by men sitting out on the sidewalk of Hamra, like for example; Starbucks, Rossa. They would simply gaze at everyone who walks by them.
As an individual, I identify with certain people, places and ideas based on commonalities and experience. I share with women my identity as a woman, I share with foreigners living in Hamra my identity as someone who is not from the country, and I share with the Lebanese -both men and women- my identity as an Arab.
If ’othering’ is a process of objectification, I am othered when leered at for example, by 1) most males in the streets, because I am a woman 2) Lebanese women who can identify that I do not look Lebanese. I am aware of these dynamics and I believe it is worthy to mention in my blog, because my interpretations of these observations may carry cultural differences of what seems to be appropriate or not. In addition, because of my social background living in a conservative society like that of Yemen, I may other those who may choose to be more liberal in their practices; for example, men shaking hands with women and greeting them, women’s choices of clothing that may look different than that of the norm in my country. As well as, beggars on the street, whom I decided not to focus on for this specific experience. Reason being, fearing to get into more complicated analysis of the phenomenon of street beggars, and not by any means ignore that they exist on the street.
Perosnal Experience as a Yemeni woman
As a woman I have been subjected to many incidents where I was harassed in the streets whether by being leered at, whistled at, honked at by random male strangers in their cars while walking down the street or even approached with negative and objectifying comments. They can be as subtle as the pop of a kiss from someone in a car or as menacing as a shout of, “Oh God, if I got my hands on you…” In Lebanon: Shu Tayba! (How delicious!). In Yemen: Ya taweel! Fditak Ana. (Hey tall one, I would die for you). Minding that whether fully covered with a headscarf and black Abaya when in Yemen, or dressed casually without the black Abya in Lebanon, I would still be catcalled and feel unsafe. Thus, this narrative about men using women’s dress as an excuse to justify their behavior, so that they do not have to take responsibility, is false and must be really challenged.
According to the observations, it is obvious that men were explicitly visible and are to be found almost everywhere on the street. They were noticed to be working in taxis and construction sites. Many other men owned local stores and stood by them. However, women were also visible. Women were driving, walking alone, walking with groups, dressed in practical outfits and uniforms. This gives me an idea that women are active just as much as men.
All in all, this observational experience does not allow me to generalize any findings to make conclusions about the phenomenon of street harassment or prove any of the hypotheses. The purpose is to observe the gendered practices and power dynamics only.