Colette Ghunim: Fighting Sexual Harassment On A Global Scale

Colette is of Mexican and Palestinian descent. She studied communications at Northwestern University. In her story, she describes how she took a risk to go to Egypt and work on a film to raise awareness about sexual harassment of women. Her film, ‘The People’s Girls,’ was critically acclaimed and received several awards. Colette’s initiative created the necessary momentum in uniting both men and women to fight back against sexual harassment both domestically and abroad. This story was recorded in partnership with MALA and StoryCorps.


“I was born in Schaumburg, Illinois to a Mexican mother and Palestinian father. So I grew up in a biracial household, which I never really thought about because a lot of my friends were all diverse anyway. But then I started to notice it as I grew up and went to high school and college, and started learning about my own past and history. I guess what has happened to my family growing up and how it’s affected my own life and how my life is important to hear for them and their own legacy. So I went to a high school that was very diverse, then I went to Northwestern University afterward. It was a great school and I had a wonderful time there, but it was very segregated and was not something that I was used to. I didn’t feel comfortable there, and I wanted to continue seeing new cultures and learning languages.


So I decided to go abroad, and I used my time in college to travel as much as possible. I took advantage of scholarships and free money from Northwestern. I decided to go to Egypt for a year, which was when I fell in love with the country and I met some of my best friends there. I just wanted to go back right after I graduated. After graduation, I went back to do a film because I studied communications in college. I did a film on sexual harassment in Egypt. Our theory of why there is such a big problem with harassment there was because men are sexually repressed since everything is so conservative there. So they lash out and try to violate women, but as we started to talk to both men and women — another thing came up which was the economy. A lot of people feel powerless because they are unemployed or can’t be active in society. So often times men will take it out on who they feel is weaker, which happen to be women in the streets. Essentially being like ‘well if I can’t have this, you shouldn’t be here in the first place.’ I think that’s a huge thing because men will often ask for your number, but really they just want to intimidate and make women feel inferior.


Our first screening was at UC Berkeley, which had huge issues with sexual assault, especially at the time. So we thought it would be a good message to bring to that campus. We had a good turnout of people both Arab and non-Arab, and older generations came to watch the film as well. And it was just wonderful to hear that they were able to relate with what was going on in Egypt with their own experiences in the US. They were able to parallel this completely different culture that they knew nothing about, and realize it compared to their own experiences. It was great because not a lot of people knew what was going on in Egypt. So being able to see how women in Egypt were fighting back allowed men and women to be inspired to see how they can fight back sexual harassment in their own communities as well.


We’ve gone on the film festival circuit, and now we are working on distribution. We hope to get the film on video on demand or on television networks to get a wider reach. There have been many times when women have come up to us and said it was too risky and dangerous to speak up about this because they could get hit or killed. It isn’t just something where they can respond and feel they can become powerful. There have been some situations where they can’t speak out, otherwise they can endanger themselves. I always think it is important to get help in whichever way you can. If you cannot get help at that moment, talk to someone afterwards. Try to find people that care about you and would be willing to help you. Also regarding bystanders, it is important to realize when you see something that the person most likely needs your help. Bystanders should get involved to try to stop it.

The biggest thing that I learned is just to go for it, if you think too much about how you can’t do it or you’re fearful that it’s too difficult – that will stop you and you won’t be able to able to go where you want to go with it. You have to do what you believe in, and you can just do it. I bought that plane ticket with no idea, but I just knew I had to do it. I figured it work out once I just get this ticket, I guess I can say to just always believe in yourself and take risks. The universe will work out for you, if you follow what you want to do.”

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