A journalist's informal chronicle of negotiating the Middle East

Sexual Harassment Smoothie

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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.

I screamed.

“STOPTOUCHINGMEWHATTHEFUCKAREYOUDOINGTHAT’STHETHIRDTIME!”

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.

 

 

 

 

 

8 responses

  1. Good on you for voicing out your trauma! I would have bitch slapped him from the first attempt but you have kept your cool which is something I can’t do. props to you and I hope this helps eliminate this disgusting issue especially in places such as those. To think of what this asshole might be doing to his female colleagues?! I worked in the food business for a while and I saw what some of the asshole waiters do to the waitresses and believe me, I never kept my mouth shut. Good on you and so sorry to read such a shameful story. God bless!

    June 23, 2013 at 13:06

  2. Reblogged this on msunderstand and commented:
    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    June 23, 2013 at 13:15

  3. tbo

    Did he carry out his promise of firing the waiter?

    June 23, 2013 at 18:09

    • Hi, I haven’t been back to the store to check but the managers have assured us he has been fired. I will update you when I get the nerve up to go back there!

      June 25, 2013 at 23:47

  4. chris

    some observations:
    - why were you so affected as to feel that you needed therapy? i am not minimizing the incident or your feelings, i’m just wondering if perhaps this response was measured.
    - if we expect measured behaviour from others, again, we too should display them, so it’s perfectly fair to have rationalized it in your head, and it’s not weakness to not want to overreact, it’s intelligent.
    - why is the smoothy so insulting? it could be an act of hospitality (and probably was), not retribution, and would be given regardless of subject matter. perhaps the flavour choice was sexist, but it’s known that this is a highly stereotyped, patriarchal, and traditional nation.
    - i bring this up because these elements were distracting, and mar the real issue, with what could be seen as pettiness. yes, there is a real problem of sexual harassment in egypt, yes your conversation with the managers was vital (as would have been speaking to the store manager at the time, if you weren’t late), and yes that is how they would react. the real issue is a need for major societal reform, which isn’t happening. i wonder what firing him will achieve, for example, and whether they’ll just hire someone else with the same problem. harassment training is a good point, but not required or reinforced, is it? someone needs to take up the torch and bring these reforms, but under the current government, i find success highly unlikely. another thing is, women are under fire world wide – i heard that 1 in 4 women are raped in the states, they are increasingly objectified, used as marketing, verbally minimized, girls are being sexualized, compared with rampant pornography, and exploited and bullied online, among other issues. why do we allow these things to happen here, where there is relative stability and freedom? and if we can’t stop it here, how can a country so much further behind in this process, be expected to make the leap suddenly? there needs to be another revolution, a sexual one – another one, and world wide, for the first one has lost all its steam and we’re regressing. these are big issues, big questions, and require big solutions. i don’t know what the answers are, but i feel cilantro is just a tree in the forest. if the powers that be don’t prioritize, we need to prioritize for them. and yet how do you prioritize a change in behaviour, in values? it’s kind of like smoking bans – but how do you ban harassment, without institutional support? the west did it, relatively successfully, and we can take that model roughly – but it’s a long road, to pass laws, to enforce, to hold account.

    i’m really sorry this happened to you, i can’t imagine how awful it was and the rage i’d feel, and i hope you’ve moved on. but i’m afraid the way forward for egypt on this issue, and many others, is a strong front of reform – either officially, or if they are unwilling, then grassroots and by force. i hope to see this in my lifetime. i wish you the best, and i wish you luck.

    June 24, 2013 at 10:56

  5. chris

    p.s. i just noticed the name of your blog ‘ya mozza’ which is a cat-call of subjugation, and rather ironic. i am the furthest thing from a prudish feminist, but a basic tenant of any argument is to be clear, and not contradictory. much like successful parenting needs to be firm, consistant, and unhypocritical, much like many girls are feeding into their own sexualization, rather than refusing it. something to think about.

    June 24, 2013 at 11:01

    • Hi Chris,

      I am indeed aware of what Ya Mozza means and intended it to be ironic and a commentary on this very problem when I named the blog.

      June 25, 2013 at 23:45

  6. good for you! for complaining, for voicing the hesitation and self-blame most of us have felt at some point.

    there’s a facebook support and action group against sexual harassment/sexual violence in egypt…everyone please feel free to join. https://www.facebook.com/groups/shagegypt/?fref=ts where are the good men? they are there, and in tahrir bodyguard, the imprint movement, harassmap and other groups.

    June 26, 2013 at 17:07

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