Let me tell you the story of the sexual harassment smoothie. It was strawberry.
It arrived in a glass on a tray full of awkward beverages and sat between me and four managers of Cilantro.
I didn’t order it but took two obligated sips anyway because apparently giving a free beverage to someone who was groped in their coffee shop makes managers feel magnanimous.
I do believe this icy pink drink was imposed on me with the best of intentions, but it came to be part of the problem.
A day earlier I stopped in the 26th July Street branch of the coffee chain Cilantro. Waiting for my coffee, I felt a bump and a quick hand brush against my ass. I got an equally quick jolt of adrenaline, or whatever it is that makes your muscles tense and your face go hot, before chalking it up to a clumsy waiter. Stop being paranoid, I reprimanded myself.
When the same waiter leaned diagonally across me and pressed his body against mine to remove my cup, I became more uncomfortable. This was a slower burn. I still felt it in my face, but now it spread to my chest. It was hard to blame it on an accident … general awkwardness maybe?
I was already late and as I packed up my things and stood to leave, another hand brushed my ass. To be clear, it was the same hand, just taking another pass.
Two things happened: The waiter turned and said “sorry sorry” before whipping back around, and the shift manager glanced up from texting, looked bored and then looked back down.
I stormed out.
I walked about 10 steps and then I shamed myself: “How could you let that happen three times before you said anything/why didn’t you realize/why didn’t you do something else, like slap him across the face/what’s wrong with you/why didn’t you raise hell/why didn’t you listen to your instincts/why do you always hesitate until it’s too late?!”
Rushing to an assignment and then to a dinner party kept me from processing until I got home and burst into tears. The next morning I woke up and found myself crying again. In my head I had a conversation with my mom telling her I might need therapy, and then I cried some more.
I didn’t think I could move out of bed until my friend Dalia told me she was coming so we could go to Cilantro and complain. Another friend called and offered her fiancée’s assistance. I said no. The last thing I wanted was to burden anyone else. But 20 minutes later Munshy called himself and told me he was coming.
Dalia, Munshy and I went to the store and demanded to be put in touch with the area manager, who asked us to meet him at another branch. We eventually sat down with him and it seemed like we kept amassing more managers at our table until we got up to leave.
They were very apologetic and promised to fire the waiter immediately and speak to the manager on duty at the time. But they were also surprised. “Nothing like this has ever happened before in one of our stores,” one said. Another one blamed it on the revolution. And then someone mentioned the Muslim Brotherhood.
When I asked if Cilantro gives sexual harassment training they all said yes, of course, and proceeded to describe what sounded more like customer service policies.
And then there was that smoothie they insisted I accept. For me it became symbolic of how deep-seated ignorance about sexual harassment and assault is. Even the people trying to solve the problem, who I honestly believe took my complaint very seriously, were part of it. With every exclamation of surprise, or explanation of policy or attempt to lay blame on some third party they undermined my complaint.
I was touched, not once but three times, by a man. And I did not want a fucking smoothie.
Dalia and Munshy went to bat for me. They said in Arabic everything I would have before I could even tell them: No, it’s probably not the first time this happened in your store. Did you ever think that maybe other women didn’t want or know how to come forward? No, it’s not the revolution, we’ve been getting groped for a long time. And Brotherhood-blaming, really?
Munshy was indignant but not just in a macho “I’m protecting your honor” sort of way. I could see him experiencing the whole range of emotions that cycle through me every time I’m harassed: shock, anger, shame, frustration, helplessness and more anger, to name a few.
But as a man, he’s in the minority.
I stood up for myself today, and whatever help that was to me emotionally or psychologically, as long as we see this problem as 1 million isolated incidents, it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t a one-time shock in one fancy coffee shop. It happens all the time to women I know and millions I don’t, and far worse than what happened to me on this particular occasion.
I’m all about empowering women, but it’s not enough. Where are the men? Why doesn’t a middle-aged, educated business owner in Cairo have even a basic understanding of what sexual harassment is? What is so wrong with the way we are educating and raising boys that an 11-year-old tells me on the street he wants to fuck me? And when and why and how does a boy turn into a man who feels it’s his right to assault women?
Disclaimer: I just want to say, I’m not out to get Cilantro. In fact, the response was surprisingly better than what I had expected. It’s not the first time something like this has happened to me in Egypt, it’s just the first time I knew where the man worked and had the opportunity to seek some resolution.