When I left for Amman to study Arabic for the year, I was planning on writing some travel articles for the student newspapers back at home. An idea I had quite soon after arriving was to write about the endless adventure that is getting around the city: the funny chat-up lines used by the taxi drivers, the buses without brakes, the lifts from rich kids driving daddy’s car at ninety. It was going to be a funny article. I suppose it was going to be sugar-coated; I was going to laugh at the taxi drivers’ fumbled advances and ignore completely the difficult side.
But then one day it got scary. I was sexually assaulted in a taxi.
I discarded the article I’d been writing. It wasn’t funny anymore. Now, nearly two months later, I’m going back to it. I’m writing this post, but I’m writing from a perspective I hoped I would never have, and I’m writing with a voice that’s a little more cautious and a little more scared than I hoped it would ever become. Getting around Amman is no longer a game. It’s something I do every day in fear.
Before I write any more, I’ve been going back and forth on how much to share in this post. I initially tried writing without sharing any specific details of my experience but in some ways the absence of detail makes the incident grow bigger. As I read back through what I’d written it felt like I had something to hide, as though the assault is some horrendous dirty secret of which I should be ashamed and about which I should feel guilty. Having said this, there are some things that are too difficult to write down and so I’ve tried to explain myself here in a sort of compromise between the fear of feeling like it’s not acceptable to talk about my experience and the fear of people knowing too much:
One evening in Amman I was coming home from the gym. I got into a taxi and instead of taking me home the driver took me to a secluded and empty part of the city. It was dark and with the car lights off we couldn’t be seen. He kept me in the taxi for roughly two hours. During that time he sexually assaulted me. He did not rape me.
Why am I writing this? There are two reasons. The first is to allow me to take control and to take my voice back. The second is because while this may have happened to me in Amman, Jordan, part of the reason that it happened is the fault of my own culture’s messed up portrayal of women. What happened to me has happened to others and will happen to us again if we don’t change something. I know I can’t change the world with a blog post, but I also know that nothing ever happened when people stayed silent. This is me speaking out.
Speaking out feels good. The day I was assaulted I had my voice taken away. For two hours that man reduced me to a terrified little girl, shaking and begging “Please, no”. He stripped me of my pride and my dignity. I’m never going to be able to show the taxi driver that I’m more than what fear made me, but in writing this I am at least demonstrating that to myself. The taxi driver forced me to beg for freedoms which I should have demanded instead. Begging in desperation is probably the most helpless I’ve ever felt. There is no way for me to show the taxi driver that I am stronger than my desperate words but, again, writing at least allows me to feel that I have some control, that I am not helpless.
It might perhaps be more accurate to say that he distorted my voice than that he took it away. The act of begging itself is not the only thing that hurt – it’s the knowledge that as I begged I said things that I would never choose to say. In Jordan Christianity is generally very well respected and virginity is still considered something to be valued and protected. In a bid to be let go I lied to the driver and told him that I was a good Catholic girl with very strong morals and that I won’t ever be involved with a man before I’m married. It was once I’d finally convinced him of this that he let me go. In desperation I played to beliefs that I consider abhorrent and destructive: mainly the idea that a woman’s worth is inversely proportional to the number of her sexual partners. I wish I could tell that man how wrong he was. That letting me go in order to protect virginity is not a virtuous action. I want him to know that a woman’s worth has absolutely nothing to do with her religious values or with whom she chooses to have sex. I am glad I said what I said in so far as I believe that it is what ended my own nightmare, but I am also angry that I said it.
If it was playing to cultural values that ended my nightmare, it was also cultural values that started it. What happened to me did not happen in a vacuum. It didn’t happen because the taxi driver was driven by some sort of inner evil force. It happened because he knew that I was from the West and he thought that that told him all he needed to know about me. He thought it gave him a right to me. Why did he think this? From what he said to me, I would guess that his attitudes have mainly been formed from American and British films, music videos and porn.
I am not suggesting that this man does not have individual culpability. I am suggesting that the issue is bigger than him. This isn’t the story of what one man did to one girl in Amman. It’s the story of how millions of women are being betrayed by their culture, portrayed as nothing more than sex objects, and how this seemingly little issue that only “angry feminists” get all het up about actually has very serious consequences. The driver spoke no English – only Arabic. He made me translate lyrics from the Rihanna songs he was playing on the radio so that it was like I was saying them to him; he was acting out a little music video fantasy.
We often like to think that Western women are so liberated and equal compared to women in the rest of the world, but that is not the image of Western women that people across the world actually see because it is not the image of Western women that we actually present. As scared as I am of the man who assaulted me, his ideas scare me more. I was assaulted in Amman, Jordan, but part of the responsibility lies thousands of miles away in my home country.
When I first got into the taxi I didn’t realise anything was wrong. When we were still heading along the normal route to my home the driver asked if I was scared. He asked me if I was scared of him. I thought this was weird.
“No,” I answered.
Then he asked me if I trusted him.
“Yes,” I said.
“Why?” He asked.
I told him that I trusted him because “I know that most people are good in the end”.
Those were the naive words of a girl who never dreamed that someone might want to hurt her. “I know most people are good in the end.”
I want him to understand what he did to me. I want him to know that he replaced that carefree trusting happiness with a knot of fear and panic. I want him to know that everyday twice a day in the taxis to and from school I feel fear. I want him to know how angry I am that he had the power to take my security away like this. I want him to know that for weeks afterwards I couldn’t eat properly. I want him to know that sometimes I think I see his face and my stomach twists inside of me. I want him to understand that every day since then he has been in my head, and in that sense I feel like I still have one foot in his taxi. It’s as though the assault is etched on me as plainly as any physical scar I may bear.
But more than this I want him to know that I am so much more than whatever he can throw at me. The day after the assault I got straight back into another taxi on my own. It was terrifying but not as terrifying as the idea of letting fear take away my independence. I will not let him win. To him I must have appeared so weak; I wish he knew that I am stronger than he’ll ever be.