Taking Back Public Space for Women

On a recent trip to Qatar the beauty of Doha, the nation's vibrant capital city, and the intense attention to detail blew me away. I visited the Museum of Islamic Arts and strolled down the corniche. What did not impress me, however, was the attention and stares I received by strange men hanging out on the street. Dressed respectably in a black abaya, I was once again reminded that people still do not accept women's existence in public spaces, no matter how conservative a woman is dressed.

Public spaces are designed for all people in mind: men, women, children; locals and tourists alike. Yet women do not always get to enjoy them. While this issue is sometimes addressed here in the Middle East—for example, women's-only hours at malls and parks, women's-only restaurants—one would be hard-pressed to find such a thing in the United States or Europe.

No person should be forced to stay at home, unable to go where they wish. But the word "public" begins to mean "men-only" when women do not feel safe taking public transportation to work, because they might be harassed on the bus or subway. There are plenty of times I have not wanted to walk down a street in Brooklyn because of the men congregating on street corners. Women who continue to push into the "male domain" are forever met with resistance.

Public spaces can also include work. In Saudi Arabia, women who work in mixed-gender workplaces are facing social criticism from their families and communities, as compared to women who work in segregated environments. Even though these women are accepted at their jobs, and many, such as doctors, have achieved great success, they are looked down upon for working with men. A report in Al-Jazirah daily found that some men do not even want to marry women who work in mixed workplaces because they might be susceptible to "harassment." A woman who is harassed in her workplace is not, firstly, damaged goods. She does not bear any shame: her harasser is at fault, not her.

The thing about accepting women in mixed-gender workplaces, in public spaces like the street and parks, is that it is not a problem that a government can fix. No law, policy, or initiative will change attitudes overnight. It's up to men to realize that it is acceptable for a woman to take a leisurely stroll through a park or on the beach without being harassed. It's up to men to realize that it's a woman's world, too.