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Recreational harassment

This hard-to-identify violence takes place when a woman is subjected to mockery in order to make men laugh. The laughter is based on stereotypes and regimes of domination

A march to defend women's rights in São Paulo in 2019.
A march to defend women's rights in São Paulo in 2019.Cris Faga

The video traveled back and forth between Brazil and Egypt in less than 24 hours. The images were posted by a white Brazilian male, camera in hand as he filmed a young Egyptian woman selling papyrus products. While the woman described the merchandise to him, the man chatted away to her in Portuguese. The woman was smiling, as polite people do during intercultural, linguistic exchanges when they want the person who is attempting to communicate with them to feel at ease. She didn’t know it, but the anonymous Brazilian was sexually harassing her. Instead of asking questions about the papyrus, he was making obscene remarks about sex and the male organ: “You all like it nice and hard, right?” “Long is nice too, right?” he says on the recording, while he and another Brazilian man laugh. A case of recreational harassment.

Why “recreational harassment” and not just harassment? With recreational harassment, it is harder to identify the violence perpetrated against the victim, because when someone watches or shares the images, their amusement actually makes them complicit with the violence. Recreational harassment occurs when a woman is harassed as part of a project of domination implemented through other men’s laughter. It is not liberating laughter (ridendo castigat mores, a Latin phrase meaning that one corrects customs by laughing at them), but laughter grounded in stereotypes and regimes of domination. Here is how José Adilson Moreira has defined “recreational racism”: cultural politics grounded in discriminatory practices against racial minorities in the guise of oppressive laughter, which naturalize racial hostility and which the law rarely recognizes as illegal. Engaging in dialogue with Moreira, Carla Akotirene has written about the inseparability of recreational racism and sexism in situations where meme humor is a weapon used to ridicule Black women for various purposes, sometimes to stereotype manifestations of the bodily disempowerment wrought by poverty, like missing teeth, or at other times in an effort to control the non-submissive voices of Black female intellectuals by labeling them “divas” or “angry Black women.” The anonymous Egyptian victim was someone who fit an Islamophobic stereotype: a young Muslim woman wearing a veil.

The Egyptian police identified the physician, who is now being investigated for the crime of sexual harassment

The episode might be interpreted as an isolated incident involving a Latin American macho abroad. But it is not isolated. In 2014, this same Brazilian released another video of himself, this time harassing an Australian woman by asking her to repeat sexual phrases in Portuguese. There is a pattern to this harassment; people who feel superior employ mockery as a power tactic to humiliate people marked by gender or sexuality, race or religion. Hidden behind the obscene comments on the recent video are cultural and gender stereotypes about Egyptian women. The arrogance of this mockery draws from a sense of ethnic and gender superiority on the part of a white patriarchy that, at home or abroad, acts with the certainty that its naturalized privileges guarantee impunity. The Brazilian apparently found nothing embarrassing about what he had done, so he posted the images to his Instagram account, which has nearly one million followers.

This anonymous man roaming the streets of Luxor is a well-known figure in Brazil. He is a medical doctor, a coach specialized in fitness techniques, and a supporter of President Bolsonaro who, more than a year into the pandemic, continues using jargon with a pseudo-scientific veneer to defend treatments of no proven scientific value, like hydroxychloroquine. Yet it would be better to describe him beyond his nationality, as a representative-without-borders of the racist patriarchy that harasses women. When confronted about the scene, the man set his Instagram account to private and justified his actions by saying: “I’m like that. I’m a real jokester.” Brazilian feminists copied the video, translated it, and sent it to women’s groups in Egypt, like the online platform Speak Up, a “feminist initiative to support victims of violence.” This was followed by an immediate online mobilization, with hashtags circulating in both countries and in three languages, Arabic, English, and Portuguese: “expel the Brazilian harasser from Egypt,” “investigate the Brazilian harasser” and “we don’t want harassers in our country.”

The Egyptian police identified the physician, who is now being investigated for the crime of sexual harassment; punishment ranges from a monetary fine to between six months and three years in prison. It was feminists who identified the incident as an instance of sexual harassment – not Instagram, which allowed the images to be posted to the doctor’s account. Only after many young Brazilian and Egyptian feminists reacted and expressed their solidarity did the social media platform determine that the video breached its Community Guidelines, which prohibit “hate speech, bullying and abuse.” The doctor’s apology to the victim tells us what women are up against: “Since I saw what a smiley person you are and how you were joking along with us, I just ended up joking around.” No, victims don’t laugh; recreational mockery is only for the aggressor.

Debora Diniz is a Brazilian anthropologist and researcher at Brown University.

Giselle Carino is an Argentine political scientist and IPPF/WHR director.

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