Work culture, coercion, compliance: Thoughts in the wake of Harvey Weinstein

By Tara Diaz

In light of the recent allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, one of the biggest questions people are asking is, why did it go on for so long?

The truth is there is no single answer, but something came to me last night as I tried to force myself to sleep: What if our work dynamic is playing a small but relevant part in all this, a work dynamic that is not only anti-women, but in fact anti-people? How does work affect our well-being and why are employers getting away with such destructive behaviour? Have we created a work culture and mindset that discourages people – but women in particular – from speaking up, a mindset that purposefully belittles those who haven’t been dealt the best hand?

For over thirty years, Harvey Weinstein has coerced women who have been victims of his abhorrent behaviour while working for/with him into remaining quiet, and it all supposedly happened right under the noses of those closest to him (celebrity or otherwise). But, was there an element of denial going on? Did a toxic organisational culture based on fear, power imbalance and a false value system enable this to happen? I will come back to Weinstein later on.

We see the phrase ‘go above and beyond’ frequently in employment discourse. It’s mentioned on job descriptions, during interviews, and at meetings. But where do we draw the line with a phrase like that, a phrase that has become an emblem for good work ethic? ‘Above’ is meaningless unless in comparison to something defined and ‘beyond’ could be anything. This attitude to work is problematic because work should not be an aspect of life that always demands more, to the point of exhaustion – particularly not in comparison to family, friends and life.

People are already under a lot of pressure to succeed, especially young people at the start of their careers. This contagious ‘above and beyond’ mentality seems to be becoming a damaging epidemic that both feeds into and feeds off a shared unease over our progression in life. It’s a vicious feedback loop that legitimises people doing things outside of their job description, a loop that ends up hitting those at the bottom the hardest. And if staying within the confines of your job description seems lazy to you, consider why you feel that way. Is it fair for your employers to increase your workload without rewarding you? It is justified that they pay you less than your colleagues for doing the same work, or that they manipulate you into skipping your already unpaid lunch breaks? Is it fair or are they taking the absolute piss? I’m glad you got it. Yes, they are taking the piss.

And it doesn’t stop there, because this ‘you must do everything in your power to succeed’ approach to work also succeeds in fuelling more unjust behaviour from the people who employ you.

In many countries such as the US and the UK, putting work before your physical and mental health has become the norm. If you don’t, you are not willing to do ‘what it takes’ to go up the ladder. Let’s look at some of the things employers are getting away with today, most of which are legal.

Employers are gifted the right – pretty red bow and all – to treat employees like production machines.  In the US, employers don’t legally have to give their employees any paid leave and if they do, it’s not mandatory they take it. The UK’s zero-hour contract option means the employer does not need to guarantee their employees a set amount of hours, often challenging what should be a worker’s right to a fixed number of minimum hours and pay vital to achieving a stable livelihood. This is great for companies who experience fluctuations in trade throughout the day, such as fast food companies, because they can send their employees home or on disproportionately long breaks whenever it’s quiet and they want to save cash. The same goes for supermarket chains that, despite paying their employees a good starting salary, have been reported to call them in during out-of-work hours instead of hiring an adequate number of employees to carry the heavy workload. Again, this helps the company save money; the employees are pretty much on stand-by and work three times as hard due to the lack of staff.

I have personally been a victim of the zero-hour contract, a structure that is presented as in the best interests of employees and a way to offer flexible working patterns. The reality is very different. While working in various bars and restaurants, I often had to abide by a schedule that was packed with evening shifts. The schedules were not always dished out fairly, which meant that only certain people got to enjoy evenings off, while others were stuck doing the same dirty work, week after week. Not only were these unsociable hours, but the workload was greater because of how busy it would get in the evenings.

One time in particular, I was employed by a chain pizza restaurant in Covent Garden. Here, our manager would demand we come in 15 minutes before our shift started for a quick ‘briefing’ (if we were doing a double shift this would amount to 30 minutes for both shifts). This time was unpaid but he made it clear this was what was expected of us and even scolded us if we were late to the meeting. He had no right to force us to be there yet we were led to believe it was our obligation to attend. It might not seem like a long time but if you get a calculator out and start multiplying all those 15 minutes by the number of shifts you’ve completed, they will turn into hours, hours of unpaid work.

Similarly, the first boss I ever had as a bartender would send me on unpaid 3-hour breaks in the middle of a double shift because he wanted to ‘stick to budget’. Additionally, he would sometimes send me home early if he felt like it. This would often mean I’d end up getting to work for 10am, would go on a break at 12pm because the pub was quiet (I wasn’t even tired at this point), and I’d start work again at 3pm only to be sent home early at 5:30pm. I’d do what felt like a full day’s work for a mere 4.5 paid hours.

This degrading behaviour was not limited to treating us like robots. It extended to uncomfortable physical encounters as well. Rather than simply asking us to move if we were standing where he needed to be, the manager would put his hands low on the waists of the female staff to move us out the way and I often caught him peering at my workmate’s breasts. We complained about this in private but never felt able to directly say anything to him as we were scared; he was the kind of man who would punish you with an extra crappy rota or simply fire you. Fortunately, that particular manager was dismissed for entirely different reasons, but not one of us felt supported enough to complain about him before he lost his job. It’s ludicrous to think that the unpredictable hours he was making us do were, and still are, technically legal and that his inappropriate behaviour is widely considered the norm.

Unfortunately, this experience as a bartender was not a unique one and over time I have learned that if you’re a barmaid for over a month, it’s common to be disrespected in some way by both customers and male superiors alike. I remember another bar I worked in for instance, where a group of greasy regulars would come in all the time and lurk around the bar, gawking at the female workers or making lurid jokes and we, scared to be seen as disrespectful, would always laugh nervously before pretending the glasses needed to be polished. Again, we were scared of the consequences of speaking out.

Often when we are confronted with these types of situations, we don’t react in the way you’d expect. If your boss suddenly puts his hand on your leg, a million thoughts will run through your head and by the time they’ve removed it, you begin to question how you might be affected if you do raise the issue. You’d like to feel as though there were a safety net in place to catch you but this is not a feeling many companies want to provide or in some cases, don’t know how to.

Aside from having to accept unpredictable hours and inappropriate and uncomfortable behaviour as a female employee, ‘above and beyond’ workplace culture also normalises overtime. In Britain, it’s normal to work up to a whole day’s work more each week with only approximately 35% of workers getting paid for that overtime. Reducing the time reserved for lunch, or even skipping it altogether is not uncommon either, but in doing so, we are handing over free labour to the companies we work for because we feel it’s what’s expected of us. Often this behaviour derives from employees mimicking their colleagues in the hope of not being labelled an underachiever. Even managers and supervisors do the same thing, so the general consensus is that this is what you need to do to achieve a similar status.

In countries like Norway, there is a strict clock-out time, an example which is set by those above. In Norway, the boss-employee relationship tends to focus on the notion that both are benefited by the other. Meanwhile, in the US, if an employee is awarded holiday, they don’t always take it or only use a small portion of it. Often this is down to the companies deterring them by making them feel like nonperformers for using their entitlement. A workaholic mindset pervades many American work places, with many people feeling like they would lag behind if they went on vacation despite the earnest attempts of their employers to encourage them to do so. Others feel they would not be able to get their assignments done in time, something they are unwilling to admit to their bosses for fear of seeming irresponsible or ill-equipped to do the job. And let’s not go into all the out-of-office e-mailing, a habit that derives from having too much on one’s to-do list.

Employers need to do more to change the work value-system and instil some solid measures to reduce the amount of energy and hours we are over-dedicating to work. It’s clear that most employers don’t see the benefits of having entitled employees who refuse to work for free, but there are huge rewards from having a less divisive partnership between employer and employee. It leads to happy energetic workers who more importantly feel like they are being rewarded for their work as well as playing a vital role towards the success of the company without sacrificing their personal lives. Whether it’s 15 minutes of lunch every day or 3 hours of unpaid labour, sacrificing your personal time all adds up.

The current work code has instilled a ‘we owe them’ mentality in all of us. From employers to team leaders, from team leaders to managers, from managers to CEOs; we are all being sucked into this divisive psychology that trickles into other areas of life, including gender equality.

Circling back to Harvey Weinstein, I should say that I am not entirely laying the blame for his consistent modes of abuse remaining hidden for so long on mainstream work culture and patterns of behaviour as employees, but we must look at how this overbearing mentality might help dissuade someone from reporting inappropriate behaviour at work, sexual or not.

I cannot speak for the Weinstein victims but I can imagine that by the time they left the hotel rooms, offices, restaurants and parties where the incidents took place and exited the buildings, they were looking back on his sexual advances like a nightmare that would quickly lead to unrelenting emotions of vulnerability and anguish. Even if they’d reported the incident, which may have undeniably helped dissipate their loneliness in a situation such as this, there was no certainty they’d be devoid of any repercussions, personal or career wise.

If a woman is sexually assaulted in a working environment and then doesn’t say anything, she has unintentionally put this so-called work ethic above her happiness, but this attitude is something most of us help instigate. Even if a woman does want to speak out, support from others can play a huge part in her doing so. If I chose to talk back to those greasy customers of ours, would I have had the right support from my male and female colleagues or my manager? It’s possible some of them would have supported me, but I was already subconsciously being suffocated by this whole notion that if I ‘went against’ my role in this way, I’d seem paranoid or over the top and might even be punished for it. Time went on and it was just easier to not say anything.

We must ask ourselves why female workers are choosing to stay quiet as opposed to revealing any wrong-doing to themselves by those with more authority and what amount of blame can be placed on a divisive environment within the work place.

You don’t have to be a keen observer to notice that the women on Weinstein’s harassment list were mostly young at the time they fell victim and in the initial stages of their careers within the movie industry. Evidently, Weinstein played a status game, taking advantage of his established power and position of authority. If you put this idea into a less sinister context, isn’t that what many employers do every day? Employers don’t have to be bullies or predators to get you to do things that are not in your contract. The game of the ever-striving employee, reaching for the top, going above and beyond, seems to take over the way we think so much so that when one day our boss or a very important client decides to do something wildly improper and threatening, as women we don’t say anything for fear of stepping out of line or being viewed as disruptive, difficult or of questionable work ethic. As my own experience taught me, sometimes we can even doubt what we’ve experienced, convincing ourselves that ‘it wasn’t bad enough to report’ or ‘it wasn’t like that’ even though we know deep down it was. All too often it is just easier to accept inappropriate behaviour because to make ourselves visible in that way could damage the professional mould that has been created for us, a mould we’re often too terrified to alter because we can’t be 100% sure there won’t be a fall if we do or anyone to catch us.

Admittedly, there is a huge difference between an employer prompting you to work over-time and asking you to give them a ‘massage’, but these small injustices act as a rock on a scale that dictates the balance or imbalance in the work place. It enables those on top to take advantage of those at the bottom. But we are also to blame. We have become excellent game players willing to ‘go above and beyond’ in the name of work. We are such good players in fact, that the bar we’ve set is needlessly high, so high that we are terrified of falling beneath it.

This, in turn, has created a toxic work culture that tends to waver rather than reinforce the support placed behind a woman. When it comes to personal wellbeing, hierarchy should equal zero. A fearless work place is the starting point.


About the author

Tara Diaz is a twenty-something film blogger who lives in London. Like many of us, she has a case of retromania and loves dissecting the 80s and 90s classics. She is also a self-professed horror junkie. She’ll watch them all: the good, the bad and everything in between. If you’d like to see more from her, feel free to read or follow her blog at

Image credit



Lucy Wheeler

The Gendered Costs of Brexit

By Malene Bratlie

The post-Brexit era which we now find ourselves in has felt like a collective break-up, at least in the Remain camp. First came the shock, then the anger, the grief, and finally the brief moments of hope that somehow ‘the greatest political crisis of our time’ would be resolved with some sense of rationality. What the past six weeks have shown the British public, is that rationality seems to be largely absent in the upper political echelons of this country (sorry, Boris). What has also been absent, not only after the results but also during the Brexit debate, is the discussion of what Brexit means for gender equality.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate what the EU has done for gender equality. There is EU legislation which actively obliges EU states to promote gender equality. For instance, the EU Gender Equality Recast Directive ‘prohibits … discrimination on grounds of sex in relation to pay.’ In the 1970s, the European Court of Justice declared that the UK had not fulfilled its obligations to incorporate the concept of equal pay for work of equal value and the UK amended its Equal Pay Act accordingly. And when the Equal Pay Act did not cover occupational pension schemes for part-time workers who are more likely to be women the European Court of Justice advocated for equal pensions for part-time workers. Protection from pregnancy and maternity discrimination, improved protection from sexual harassment and equal pay for female part-time workers are just a few of the many efforts the ECJ have made for a more gender-equal European Union (for a more detailed description of what EU law has done for gender equality, see full report published by The Trade Union Congress).   

It is uncertain what the gendered costs of Brexit will be. The National Institute for Economic and Social Research showed that post-Brexit welfare cuts would hit low-income households the hardest, and particularly the lone parent families with two children. 90% of lone parents are women. According to the TUC’s findings, Brexit may threaten the EU-guaranteed rights for workers as UK governments can deregulate the labour market and reduce ‘burdens’ on businesses. Thus, without the assurances of EU laws, women are at risk of facing a future in which they cannot expect rights to equal treatment, job security and maternity and parental leave. The UK can also say goodbye to the €6.17 billion the EU allocated to achieve gender equality objectives between 2014 and 2020. Some of these objectives include promotion of female entrepreneurship, gender equality in research and better integration of migrant women in the labour market.

Would 52% of women have voted to leave if all of this had been made clear to them during the debate? An ICM poll for the Fawcett Society found that both campaigns largely failed to address issues that women were concerned about. Deborah Mattinson, founder of Britain Thinks suggested that in order to engage female voters, both sides needed to appeal to how the EU personally affects them. She pointed out that ‘the ‘stay’ arguments are much more effective when related to the personal level – talking about potential job losses rather than impacts on trade and investment.’ However, employment issues along with topics such as ‘social security’ and ‘public services’ received less than 10% of media coverage. On the contrary, TV and newspapers gave most attention to the economy and immigration. While the economic aspect of the debate is rightfully pivotal, the possible impact of austerity on women as a result of Brexit was apparently of little importance to mainstream media. It has already been made clear that austerity policies have disproportionately affected women. Additionally, the ubiquitous presence of white, male politicians and experts in both TV and press coverage reveals the entrenched tendency to undervalue women’s opinions and expertise. With the Leave campaign being so fuelled with lies and empty promises, the absence of female voices is another handful of salt sprinkled in a wound that Britain will need time to heal from.

While there is certainly room for improvement in EU’s gender equality agenda, Brexit means that the UK has placed itself outside any discussion that may further enhance women’s rights. If the UK had stayed in the EU we could, for instance, put pressure upon the rather male-dominated institution that the EU is. We could have sought to minimise the ways in which EU’s austerity measures, like the UK, generate multiple gendered damages. It is not likely that because of Brexit, all gender-equality initiatives ever fought for will be thrown out the window. If we move to EEA membership, the UK would be obligated to follow key gender equality objectives. We would, however, lose access to the European Court of Justice, who has played a crucial role for women’s rights in Britain.
Planning UK’s (isolated) future, we need women at the forefront. Because at the moment, I for one am fed up with the absence of women (among other marginalised groups) in major political debates and that, in this ‘meritocratic’ society we supposedly live, white men still dominate. We need women who understand why you may need protection from workplace sexism, who do not rob essential rights from you if you work part-time in order to take care of your children. We need politicians who understand how fiscal policies can have a skewed effect on women’s economic position, such as cuts in the public sector where women make up 65% of the workforce, or when the employment tribunal fees introduced by the coalition government in 2013 resulted in an 80% decrease of women pursuing sex discrimination claims.

In a Britain that currently feels horrendously divided, women must stand together, putting pressure on the Brexit negotiators to protect women’s rights and not treat gender equality measures as a luxury available only in times of economic prosperity.

Fight, Flight…or Freeze: Rethinking Reactions to Sexual Assault

By Lindsay Riddoch

September is my least favourite month of the year. I figure I’m not the only one who hates it — Green Day at least seem to be on my side. My hatred for it — aside from the obvious end-of-summer reasons — comes from September 9th 2011. I’d just been staying with a good friend in Cardiff. It was the summer between my slightly unusual sixth form and university. I had 3 weeks until I started my new life in London. I was booked on a Megabus from Cardiff to London, and then from London to Edinburgh. It was a hellish journey, but one I had done before. My iPlayer was fully loaded with documentaries and it was all going to be fine.

At Victoria Coach Station, a man sat next to me on the bus. I don’t have a visual memory, and probably couldn’t even describe what my best friends look like, but I could draw you a picture of this man. After about an hour (judging by the fact that I had watched one documentary on iPlayer) he started to assault me. Four long — though simultaneously incredibly short — hours later, he got off the bus in Manchester.

I didn’t scream, I didn’t even say the word ‘no’. I moved my legs, moved them again, and then my brain disappeared. In the last few seconds before my brain and body went into shut-down, I was more scared of causing a scene than I was of losing my autonomy over my own body. I had flashes of a video we watched in year six about ‘feeling yes, feeling no’. I considered, as instructed on this video, shouting no. But as I was considering this option my brain went into survival mode and decided that taking me out of that situation was the safest option. Without an option to physically escape, it let me mentally escape.

Those 4 hours changed my life forever. As I tried to process the trauma in my mind and body, I was told by a psychiatrist that I needed to ‘get counselling to learn how to say no’. My lack of assertiveness was seen as the problem that needed treating. Even as more empathetic people explained trauma theory to me, they kept talking about ‘fight or flight’. Common parlance and psycho-babble alike kept explaining to me that when in danger, my body goes into fight or flight mode. Yet I didn’t do either of those things — did that mean I wanted it, that my body betrayed me? I didn’t punch him, regardless of the fact he wasn’t that big. I didn’t get up and demand to be let off the bus. After attempting to move within my seat I sat completely still. I froze. In terms of evolutionary survival, I played dead.

Running and fighting are not the only two options when faced with a threat. There is a third option — often touted in response to grizzly bears. Play dead. Stop fighting. Wait for the attacker to get bored whilst inflicting as little violence as possible. As children, girls are told not to fight: they are taught not to raise their head too far above the parapet. They are taught to wait, to ignore. Meanwhile their subconscious mind quickly picks up on the strength of boys around them. Their subconscious makes a snap judgement — that on the balance of probabilities, this man is stronger than they are. Back then, as an 18 year old, I was faced with a situation that my rational mind had no map for — no learnt or taught reactions to — my evolutionary brain took over. It used all the information available to it and froze.

In an email I wrote a few weeks after my Megabus journey I said the following: “I know you’re going to be sitting there thinking this is some kind of super big deal. But this isn’t sexual assault. Honestly. It’s not as bad as it sounds. I just wish I could know why my mind shut down; and how to stop it doing that to me again, because it seems like whatever kicks in after the brain leaves makes incredibly unsound decisions.” Reading that now breaks my heart. I’d heard of ‘fight or flight’. It made sense to me, and as far as I could tell my evolutionary mind had let me down. It hadn’t fought and it hadn’t run. From there came the victim-blaming; from there came my guilt. Yes, the media is part of that problem, and so is all that advice about how not to get raped. But, in my opinion, the single biggest contributor is every single time we miss out the freeze when we discuss ‘fight or flight’.

The freeze response is, I believe, something less common in men, who are more likely to have been raised to fight, or to weigh-up that they are able to flee. In a world dominated by male ideas, we are given a male understanding of traumatic reactions. Yet actually, across the board, freeze is the most common of the three reactions. Last time a car almost hit you in the road, did you run? Or did you actually, to the mockery of those around you, stand dead still in front of it as it honked its horn? If we’re going to curb the misunderstanding and slander of rape and sexual assault victims, we need to start with a basic psychological education. We need to give people an understanding of how their brains react that is bigger than the basic ‘fight or flight’ idea. Preventing people from raping in the first place would obviously be the ideal, and lessons about consent are vital, but we also need to help people understand their own reactions. Boys especially need to understand the evolutionary reactions when one’s mind assumes a physical strength deficiency. Girls need to learn about freeze when they’re young, not only after — heaven forbid — they fall victim to a terrible crime.
In a sexual assault or rape scenario, freeze is by far the most common reaction. We need to remember that for ourselves, for our loved ones and for everyone who is sitting blaming themselves for something that happened to them. Even more importantly, however, we need to understand why our bodies do it. We need to not hate them for their attempts to protect us. We need to realise that, whatever the after-effect, in those minutes both our mind and our body were doing their absolute best to keep us as safe as possible. We need to remember that whatever happened to our body was not a sign of us enjoying ourselves, but instead of our evolutionary protection of ourselves. And every single time we say ‘fight or flight’ we must say ‘fight, flight or freeze’. We must raise a generation of young people who know that freeze is an evolutionary reaction. We must make judges, psychologists and police officers understand that playing dead works. We must forgive our own bodies for doing their best.

Uber & the UN: Using Gender Segregation to Achieve Gender Equality

By Kate Gilchrist

A few weeks ago, the UN retracted its proposed link-up with ride-sharing firm Uber. Under the initiative announced only a few weeks earlier, Uber and the UN intended to create one million jobs for female drivers by 2020. Those female drivers would hopefully provide safer rides for female-only passengers travelling on their own. Sounds good right? It would have tackled two female-friendly issues at one time: economic empowerment of women and better safety for women passengers travelling in taxis… So why did the UN suddenly pull out?

It was in direct response to concerns raised by the International Transport Federation Union. It was left to the ITF – backed by a number of international women’s organisations – to highlight Uber’s questionable (and well documented) employment practices and safety records. The ITF’s statement said: “Women already make up a high percentage of the precarious workforce, and increasing informal, piecemeal work contributes significantly to women’s economic disempowerment and marginalisation across the globe.” Uber jobs would “not contribute to women’s economic empowerment and represents exactly the type of structural inequality within the labour market that the women’s movement has been fighting for decades.”

Either the UN didn’t do its research (inexcusable considering that most people could probably have told them as much), or it gambled that the bigger headline of the creation of one million jobs for women – and the injection of funding/collaboration from the private sector – was enough of a pay-off. But what’s more remarkable is that the UN even considered it as it raises many other wider issues beyond those flagged by the ITF. While I of course support the principle of helping to create jobs for women, as well as potential ways to tackle violence against women – both real and significant social problems – this was not the way to do it.

Selling out

If Uber really wanted to make women’s lives safer, they could tighten their security checks and hiring practices. Surely if assaults are occurring within a business’ operation, legally the business should be held to account no matter how amateur their style of operation? At what point does the benefit of cheap rides obscure responsibility for safety? Oh, and they could just actively hire more women if female underemployment is their equal concern: in the US for example, only 14% of UBER drivers are female.

The real incentive was that Uber stood to make a profit from this on several fronts. It would grow its employee headcount and (female) passenger numbers and counter one of its key criticisms, which is that, as its taxi drivers are unlicensed they are a less safe way to travel than licenced taxis, as has been well documented. It would also have benefited from the huge international publicity and prestige gained from being associated with a global human-rights-friendly brand like the UN, and from the resulting glow of appearing to be a socially responsible business.

But being a profit-making entity, such behaviour is not surprising. The UN has no such excuse. As a non-profit making organisation that supposedly has gender equality as a central goal, its association with this initiative is highly questionable. Although the UN can never be wholly free from neoliberal forces and funders, it represents a further step towards the almost semi-privatisation of our human-rights orientated institutions. It is a move that continues to place the promotion of economic growth as the number one way to solve social problems. But what’s a little instrumental profit-making if ultimately the social benefits outweigh the negatives and you are working towards your goal of greater gender equality? Oh, wait, no, wrong again. Because what the project actually would have done is sustain some very dangerous messages on both sides of the gender divide – the over-generalising, gendered presumption that all men are dangerous and all women are vulnerable and need protection.

Gendered division cannot achieve gender equality

While violence against women is a definite problem which must be addressed – as feminist activists have long argued with events such as Reclaim the Night – we should not try to solve such issues by policing women’s behaviour and creating no-go zones in the name of gender equality. Gender division is not gender equality. Like women-only carriages on the tube (which has frequently been suggested on the London transport network) – restricting women’s movement is not liberation. Warning of and prosecuting perpetrators, increasing surveillance and campaigning for increased reporting as well as better handling of sexual crimes would go much further. Women-only drivers and rides would continue to suggest that once again, it is women’s responsibility to tackle gender inequality and we must change our actions. Two years ago I was travelling on an underground train in Singapore and was shocked to see a sign on the wall warning female passengers not to stand too close to male passengers wearing a short skirt in order to avoid assault. Whilst this is a more extreme example, it follows exactly the same logic of telling women to get on certain carriages, or ride in certain taxis, and that certain spaces are simply not safe for them.

Which moves us on to an even bigger problem. The initiative would also have reinforced and sustained the gender dichotomy: the idea that there are only two genders which we must all fit into. What about those who don’t pass, or don’t want to pass, the ‘bathroom test’ – who gets to decide if you fall into the ‘right’ gender category to partake in your taxi ride? Regulate that one, Uber. Thankfully this time the deal has been dropped but it was a close call and a warning to the UN to consider its strategic partnerships much more carefully.

Gender and Terrorism in Egypt: Who Really Needs Saving?

By Elena Sabatini

In our current day and age, Islam can now be seen to fit into the Western imaginings of the ‘bogeyman’, or what Edward Said referred to as the ‘Other’: something characterised by its savagery, despotism and on some occasions downright ‘lasciviousness’, diametrically opposed to the ‘rational and civilised West.’ Aside from the sometimes legitimate concern over terrorist threats, however, a more pervasive and subtle factor at play is our conviction that Islam as a religion oppresses women — and significantly more so than any Western-originated structure, religion or institution. It is true that thousands of women are oppressed, abused and discriminated against globally, via the instrumentalisation of Islam as well as most other religions and cultures. However, there is a growing narrative which wrongly suggests that all Middle Eastern women are oppressed by Islam and require Western help. Our imagery of Arab men, of the Middle East, North Africa and Islam are now irrevocably tied in with the idea that women living in these regions, or who are in some way affiliated with Islam, are in need of being ‘saved’ from the dominance of ultra-conservative men. Or as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak put it, we are persuaded of the need for ‘white men saving brown women from brown men.’ I would like to challenge the assumption that Muslim women are always ‘oppressed’. Instead, by using the example of the rise in attacks against women in Egypt, I’d like to argue that women have been caught in the crossfire of larger global dynamics such as the ‘war on terror’, but that these dynamics are hidden under the veil of the need to ‘protect women from the threat of Muslim men.’

The loose category of ‘Arab women’ — and the not necessarily correlated one of ‘Muslim women’ — is now irrevocably associated with connotations of oppression, and the need for their rights and safety to be protected. A classic example of this narrative is Laura Bush’s radio speech from November 2001. The former First Lady argued that ‘the brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists.’ She added that ‘the civilised people throughout the world’ were heartbroken and distressed upon seeing that the Taliban wanted to ‘impose their world on the rest of us.’ Finally, she claimed that ‘because of our recent military gains in Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.’ Her speech constructed Muslim masculinity as ‘the Other’ (in opposition to the ‘civilised people’) and as a threat both to women and the entire world — thus attempting to legitimise the need for military intervention in Afghanistan.

Together with the correlation with ‘terrorism’, Arab and Muslim masculinity have been increasingly constructed as ‘hypersexualised’ and impossible to control. In the case of Egypt, below are two examples of some street adverts that appeared in Cairo after cases of harassment against women started increasing in 2008:


The first caption reads ‘a veil to protect or eyes will molest.’ The second example says ‘you can’t stop them, but you can protect yourself.’ The ads depict Egyptian men as flies, unable to stop themselves, whilst at the same time accentuating the idea of women as objects of desire and not safe enough to be present in the public sphere. Needless to say, the ads further the idea that if a woman is attacked while not wearing a veil, she is the one to be blamed.

Instances of street harassment were already common in Cairo, but following the Arab Uprisings in January 2011, cases of violent sexual assaults against women started increasing. They peaked on 25 January 2013 — the second anniversary of Mubarak’s ousting. On that day, 19 cases of assault against women were reported in the vicinity of Tahrir Square alone. All of the attacks occurred in an almost identical fashion and were highly systematic. They were also perpetrated by men who appeared completely free from any fear of repercussion (in some cases, they even attacked the ambulance that arrived on site to take the victim to the hospital).

Academics and human rights organisations alike have both argued extensively that the attacks against women in Cairo were actually orchestrated by Egyptian state actors themselves. These patterns were in fact reminiscent of Mubarak’s use of sexual violence to deter women from protesting. In 2005, for example, groups of men were hired to attack female journalists who were protesting against a referendum on constitutional reform. To date, the perpetrators have yet to be prosecuted. Nadje al-Ali argues that there is no doubt that Egyptian authorities have been instrumentalising violence — particularly sexual violence — after the fall of Mubarak’s regime. This organised violence occurred through the medium of the baltagiya (thugs from informal settlements in the Cairo periphery), who were appropriated in the early 2000s by Egyptian security forces. They were ordered to shout extremist slogans during protests to make protesters look like ‘terrorists’ as well as brutalise the protesters themselves.

Whether or not these attacks were actually orchestrated by state-affiliated actors, I think we can agree on a few things. Firstly, in the post-9/11 world the discourse on the ‘war on terror’ and the need to reduce the threat of Islamic fundamentalism is ever-present. Secondly, there also seems to be a massive emphasis on the need to protect women in the ‘global South’ from gender-based violence, particularly when somehow correlated to Islam. Just how much women would actually want to be protected by the West remains murky at best.

On the other hand, notions such as the rise in Islamic fundamentalism and violence against women certainly generated an interest amongst international actors, such as the US State Department and the UN. They also provided what appeared to be a solid and legitimate basis for the Egyptian state to justify an increase in the use of state-perpetrated violence, so as to allegedly ‘protect’ women and defuse the threat of an Arab ‘time-bomb masculinity’. Incidentally, that term has been widely used in the media, and is eerily reminiscent of the suicide bomber trope. I would argue that this terminology is not due to a random semantic choice, but rather an intentional effort to correlate the notions of ‘Arab man’, ‘hypersexuality’ and ‘fundamentalism’. Regardless of who was actually responsible for the attacks in Cairo, it is clear that their occurrence was useful to the Egyptian state and military apparatus. Riding on global dynamics such as the ‘war on terror’ and the fight against gender-based violence, the state was able to instrumentalise the attacks in order to legitimise its own human rights abuses, its criminalisation of Cairo’s ‘slums’, mass arrests and a continuation of the state of emergency decree.

However, mainstream discourse on the rise in violence against women in Egypt has yet to address the vested interest of the Egyptian state in the unfolding of these events and in the construction of their narrative. Instead, it continues to simplistically focus on debating just how oppressive Islam is towards women. This is an incredible reduction of the issue as clearly, in the Egyptian case, the violence is a reflection of a broader power struggle that has everything to do with squashing civilian dissent. A simplistic explanation based on patriarchal norms in ‘Arab culture’ is simply not enough to explain the organised violence which has been taking place.

In a time that seems characterised by rising levels of intolerance, I would argue that we need to steer clear of ‘essentialising’ and ‘othering’ attitudes. The events in Egypt are a case in point, and simply talking about Egyptian women being ‘oppressed’ offers a significantly thwarted understanding of the issue at hand. Another useful exercise might be that of refraining from protective attitudes, and alternatively trying to understand if they are masking vested interests. The only way to increase mutual understanding is to strive for a more subtle and nuanced comprehension of processes, events and their causes — and avoiding tendencies towards stereotyping .

In light of a more comprehensive analysis of events in Egypt, I now feel compelled to ask if rather than talking about ‘saving’ Muslim women, we should instead be trying to save ourselves from our own assumptions — and questioning whose interest lies behind creating the basis for those assumptions.

Why We Should All Listen to Erasure – “A Little Respect”

By Elena Sabatini

A week ago, as I cursed the CityMapper app for lying to me about when my bus would arrive, a banal and yet pervasive intuition swept over me as I realised my frustrations with urban life.

Newsflash: there is very little that I am actually in control of.

It doesn’t matter that CityMapper has been saying that the 91 bus will arrive in 2 minutes for the past 15 – sometimes buses get stuck and I should deal with it.

It doesn’t matter that I tried, for hours, to force myself to be in a good mood before going to that party and, once I arrived, realised I would have much rather socialised with the tub of ice cream in my freezer. I cannot fully control my mood and state of mind on any given day – not even upon command.

It doesn’t matter if I always give evils to the “leering loiterers” close to my flat who were there when I returned from that party. No matter the amount of freezing stare-downs I give them, they always hang out in the same spot.

It was the kind of whooshing moment when all other nagging thoughts melted away, and all of a sudden, I was filled with an odd and pervading sense of serenity. We all spend so much time trying to control our surroundings; the environment we thrive in; the way the shopkeeper, our colleagues and the people we love think of us. Yet very little comes of our meddling.

Hold on though. Yes, the outside world is complex, unpredictable and sometimes near intractable. But Newsflash #2, there is one thing that is almost completely within our control: the way we choose to relate to others. And in my epiphany-inebriated mind, it occurred to me that the best way to go about that might be by adding a little human decency and empathy to our lives.

Hear me out for a second here: despite the cheesiness, the implications of this are fairly immense. I sometimes wonder what passes through the creepy guys’ heads when they are undressing a girl with their looks. What is it exactly that makes them think that she appreciates being looked at like an inanimate object? Those looks – and the obscene words on the street – only have the effect of stripping a human being of the feeling that they have a right to decide when, and with whom, they can have an interaction of any type. In other words, those looks and those words imply that the ‘hot’ girl is less worthy of dignity, or that she might even be regarded as a lesser human being.

Yet the optimist in me carries on believing that if we all started to actively control our interactions in a positive way, the issue of creepy stares – amongst others – would at least be alleviated. Granting someone the dignity they deserve is not a magical cure, but it certainly would improve the quality of life of many girls – and their evenings.

In the context of gender inequality, I do not think that advocating dignity should be a one-way street, merely from men to women. Quite the opposite: I am prone to believing that gender stereotypes disfavour both women and men. Most of us are quite wrapped up in our ‘socially constructed’ armour which, for women, often tends to translate into insecurity about appearance and intelligence but also about their physical safety. On the other hand, the macho and closed-off model is one that many men are confronted with.

In 2012, 4,590 men in the UK committed suicide. That is almost four times the number of women who took their own lives that same year. Now try and tell me that the fact that lots of men are discouraged from opening up is not a key factor behind these numbers. I believe that the simple action of granting others the dignity, respect and empathy they deserve could vastly improve our social situation: how comfortable we feel about opening up; how comfortable we feel walking down an empty street at night; how comfortable we feel in having a relationship with whomever we want, whenever we chose.

On a personal level, I believe that people exerting a positive control over how they relate to others would eventually allow me to feel comfortable when I’m out alone in the evenings – even on a night bus at 3am, and even if I choose to wear ‘that dress.’ Last, but by no means least, positive control over how we conduct ourselves would allow me (and many others, I’m sure) to feel comfortable to chose the tub of ice cream over the party every once in a while.

Despite my enthusiasm, I’m aware that the granting of dignity and empathy is not some ground-breaking epiphany or revolutionary gender theory. It’s just a question of basic humanity, really. But as far as I’m concerned, I shall carry on proclaiming my newsflashes with undying exuberance at least until I stop questioning whether or not I should wear ‘that dress’ before leaving my flat.

Why We Should Not Stop Talking About Street Harassment

By Jane Derishu

As this is my first post for a blog named Gender and the City, I thought it would be appropriate to specifically discuss the relationship between gender and cities. I have been quite lucky in this respect: the timing of this article is perfect after Hollaback — an international movement that tries to end street harassment — published a brilliant video addressing this exact issue.

For those of you who haven’t watched it yet, the video shows a woman (Shoshana B Roberts – because credits are important) walking for 10 hours across New York City, and the reactions she gets from men on the street. To clarify, I am not arguing that all men are violent and harass women, but I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t experienced street harassment at least once in her lifetime. For this reason, I believe it is important that we talk about this.

Comments, whistling, various weird sounds… sometimes all you need is one guy looking at you weirdly to feel unsafe whilst walking on the street. I might be old-fashioned, but I still think that people should feel safe in public spaces.

The tricky thing about this is that you have two ways of reacting, and both are a trap. If you do not react initially in the way the harasser wants you to (whatever that may be), it is likely that they will continue to harass you. On the other hand, they can also interpret a lack of reaction as snobbish or even bitchy, or other not-as-polite profanities. As we all know, this is not the best way to start the day.

The second option is even trickier since it aims to make you feel like you are the one doing something wrong. Yes, I’m talking about answering back. From my own personal experience I can confirm that by replying to their comments (whether politely or not) often the perpetrator immediately pretends to be a victim who will accuse you of being hysterical, overreacting to what they think are normal social situations, or even resorts to calling you a sociopath. I frequently received this kind of reaction, one that pointed a finger at me for not being nice to them. They then claimed they merely wanted to pay me a compliment. I was also, ridiculously, blamed for disrupting the social order, with claims that, due to my behaviour, men now feel they cannot even talk to women anymore without being considered perverse. It is just great to have found out that I am actually the reason why men no longer know how to talk to women.

I am not even going to explain what is wrong with the comment above, but occasionally I found myself wondering if this harassment tactic ever worked for these men. What do they get out of it? I could never imagine myself stopping when a man whistles at me in the street and asking him out. I would love to know if it has ever worked for anyone.

But why am I discussing this? Firstly, because I think it is a serious problem. I have been to so many major cities all around the world and in every one, without exception, I have found myself in a similar situation as the one described above. I did not feel safe, not at all. Secondly, because I believe we should not stop talking about it. Regardless of what I think municipalities, policy makers and politicians should do about it, I believe that we – women and men who care and find it important – should keep talking about it so that it keeps receiving attention until words have been translated into actions. So please, flood the media with your personal stories, because public spaces will not be public until it is safe for both men and women to walk through them undisturbed.

On the same subject, a few days ago I was given the card below by a guy who was standing in front of me in a coffee shop queue: I felt flattered, I felt safe and we had a nice talk. I would never even consider stopping and talking to the same guy if he had shouted something to me on the street. This is something that those who claim it is impossible to talk to women these days without making them feel scared or uncomfortable, should think about carefully.

Omer article

Watching Men, Watching Women

By Ali Leyland-Collins

I have found that there are three main ways to deal with street harassment: 1) respond with a positive attitude, 2) respond with a negative attitude or, 3) not to respond at all – usually the most popular choice. Just to clarify: by respond positively, I mean engaging with the harasser in a way which could be interpreted – by them – as encouragement. By respond negatively, I mean giving them a piece of your mind. Sadly, this is an incredibly overwhelming and daunting option and is not employed often enough.


Recently, a friend of mine adopted the boldest response to street harassment there is: she called the perpetrator out on the fact that he grabbed her arse and let me say this now, things escalated very quickly. Now let me backtrack a bit and give the context of this particular occurrence: it was 2am; we had just left the student union; my friend was stone-cold sober (she doesn’t drink); and the offender did not go to our university. Let’s just think about this for a moment. These guys had waited outside the union under the pretence that they were ‘waiting for friends’ and essentially planned to prey on vulnerable – most likely drunk – female students. They picked the wrong target. My friend turned around without missing a beat: ‘Sorry, can you not do that..?’ Boom. Straight on the defensive: ‘It wasn’t me.’ As far as I’m concerned, this response begs the question how he knew what he was defending himself against if she hadn’t specified… Regardless, our chivalrous male friends came to her defence and after much shouting, fisticuffs and eventually also police, we were able to sleep easy that night. It goes without saying that this is not how it should be. Yes, these boys should not have been able to find their way onto our campus in the first place, but how is it humanely possible that a guy can actually grope a girl’s arse and then be genuinely shocked when he is called out on it?

Street harassment is, more often than not, less obvious than in the above case and it is astonishing to witness how men think they are being ‘subtle’ in such instances.


I have coined a term… maybe: ‘leering loiterers.’ We all know who I mean. Too often have I been walking behind a girl in leggings, or a girl bearing her legs or even just a female being and have witnessed men standing by the side of the pavement, turn their heads as she walks past. I am not ashamed to say that watching men who do this has become a favourite pastime of mine. I do not feel guilty being an onlooker and not saying anything because – and here is the crux – we know they’re doing it. This may come as a shock to those men who don’t understand how we can possibly know you’re looking when we’ve already walked past, but we do, and for multiple reasons:

1) If said man is talking on the phone or to friends of his, his voice projects as he turns his head. This is something which I’m sure we all notice but perhaps haven’t quite been able to articulate: your voice should become less distinct as we walk away from you, not more.

2) If you turn your head just before the girl walks past, it is still obvious. Too many times have I witnessed the ‘incidental head-turn’ just before said female walks past but then the lingering eyes remain transfixed on the girl until she is out of sight.

3) We just know. We’ve been putting up with leering loiterers since pre-puberty (grim, but true) and have therefore cultivated a sixth sense for it.

I understand male instincts and the appreciation of beauty but why can’t it be just that: an appreciation. Don’t make it stealthy, because it makes us uncomfortable. Don’t make conversation with us on the street unless it’s something that you would say to anyone (including other men) …in front of your parents. I appreciate female beauty on the street too, but I don’t do it in a way that would make her feel watched or scrutinised, only beautiful.


A friend once told me a story that I will never forget because it’s so unusual and quite wonderful. Her grandmother had been sitting on the tube, staring at another woman across the carriage from her for some time. She tried to stop looking but found that she couldn’t stop her eyes from flitting back to this woman. As she got off the train, she approached the woman and apologised for the fact that she had been staring at her: ‘you’re just so beautiful’ she said, and then left. I know some people will take issue with my saying that I think this is a wonderful way to conduct yourself in such a situation. Personally, I do not have a problem with anyone from any gender looking at anyone else because it’s not a dirty thing to do, so long as you don’t act in a way that makes it seem like it is.

Recently, someone came up to me and said something very similar to the above. I admit, if I had noticed him staring from across the cafe we were in, I would have felt uncomfortable. However, in this particular instance, he was just one in a sea of bodies but as he was leaving, he approached my table and said ‘I’m really sorry to bother you but I just wanted to tell you that I think you’re beautiful.’ Not sexy. Not hot. Not bangin’, or any of those other crude variations. Just beautiful. And then he left. He didn’t ask for anything, or linger – he just left. This made me feel happy and I won’t apologise for that. No, I don’t need the affirmation of a stranger to make me feel good about myself: this simply made me feel happy and showed me that there is another way to go about ‘looking’ that is not ‘leering.’

Calling Out Street Harassment

By Victoria Palazzo

A Facebook friend of mine recently posted about how empowered she felt after being wolf-whistled in the street by strangers. This is not the first time I have seen women react positively to some forms of street harassment. Tabloids, such as the Daily Mail, argue that women love some forms of light harassment as a reaffirmation of their attractiveness to men. Despite this, it is important that street harassment be recognised for what it is: a form of sexism that is regularly faced by females. It is a display of masculine dominance that is intimidating, can be threatening and, at other times, is plain dangerous.

So what is street harassment and why is it sexist? It is any public form of forced conversation, cat-calling, leering, vulgar gestures or noise that is uninvited and makes one feel uncomfortable. On the darker end of the spectrum, it can include flashing, sexual touching, public masturbation and assault. Many women, girls and females generally, will have experienced some or all of these things before even coming to the end of puberty. Speaking just for myself and the women I am close to, each one of us has been harassed near our own houses multiple times in the past week alone. Two of us have been followed in the night, all of us have had men trying to force us into conversation: “Excuse me! Can I just ask a question?”; “You alright beautiful?”; “Nice skirt! Yeah you know that’s a nice skirt!”; “Smile love!” All of us have also been stared at. This is not acceptable and it should not be normal to behave like this to people that you don’t know, on the street.

It is sexist simply because it is unwanted behaviour committed predominantly by men to women. It is far less likely for men to behave in this way towards other men or for women to do it to men. Harassment reminds us on a daily basis that public space belongs to the masculine; it reaffirms that women should be passive receivers of male attention and that they are valued, above all, on how attractive they are to men.

It might seem like an overreaction but the reality is that women limit their own freedom as a result of street harassment. Which woman hasn’t avoided darkly-lit roads when wearing skirts? Which woman hasn’t crossed the street to avoid a gang of boys? Which woman doesn’t think about how they would run away if attacked/followed on the way home at night? Which woman hasn’t been verbally abused for not responding positively to male attention? How many women have thought again before entering a bar that is full of men?

Harassment does not only happen at night or in bars, it happens everyday in shops, at bus stops, on the streets and in the workplace. It is not only directed to attractive women. It is not always directed to adult women. It is not exclusive to some ethnicities, classes or other social groups. There is no correct response from the person who experiences it. Responding back can lead to aggressive attacks; reporting it to the police can lead to your complaint being ignored; walking on by can lead to you being followed and harassed down the street; smiling can encourage it. I, along with most females, have tried some if not all of these reactions. The fact remains the same: we have no control over the situation. The masculine harasser who demands your attention verbally and sometimes physically has already claimed that power.

So how should it be dealt with? One answer is to try to deal with the sexist attitudes that have made it acceptable for men to interrupt women’s daily lives and force them into speaking to/noticing them. This can be done on a private level by speaking to our friends and family. Telling men that they don’t have to be chauvinistic in order to be a man and by telling women that they are worth more than their looks. It can also be dealt with locally. Councils can start to fund local initiatives that educate young people about the dangers of sexism. They can fund social movements that seek to make street harassment socially unacceptable. It can also be dealt with nationally by a governmental commitment to fund and support organisations that fight sexism everyday.

In a time of increased cuts to social services, local councils and charities it seems unlikely that a monetary commitment from the government will happen anytime soon. This does not mean that we should not care. It does not mean that we shouldn’t think about how this form of aggression affects women’s lives. I, and all my friends, have been hooted at, cat-called and harassed since we were children. The wealth of internet activity about street harassment assures me that we are not alone.

The world teaches women to value their self worth on their physical appearance/sexual attractiveness to men. It’s not surprising that my friend felt flattered by the wolf-whistle. By celebrating this fact, however, she is only encouraging masculine dominance over ‘passive’ femininity in public spaces. This dominance should be recognised for what it is: sexist bullying directed at feminine adults, teenagers and children. And bullying is never acceptable.

For more information about how to deal with street harassment and to share stories: