Days 'numbered' for cell phone harassers

Young men who shout out phone numbers to passing women in public may soon get the attention of another source: Dubai Police.

DUBAI // Women are becoming irritated by what is known as tarqeem, or "numbering": when groups of young men harass them in public by calling out the men's phone numbers.

The attention is almost always unwelcome, and the practice is something of which the police are taking an increasingly dim view. Capt Ali al Suwaidi, of the Dubai police General Investigation Division, said yesterday there had been a noticeable increase in improper advances using technology such as Bluetooth.

In addition to being irritating, such behaviour is a criminal offence under the heading of Mu'akassat, which could be translated as "harassment" or "improper flirtation". Men convicted of violating a woman's sanctity in a public place under Federal law could go to prison for up to a year, be fined Dh10,000, or both. Tarqeem has caught the attention of security patrols in shopping malls and other public places, Capt al Suwaidi said.

"The act of giving a number to a woman in front of people can breach her modesty because of how people will view that woman, even though she is not participating," said Mohammad Ahmad al Saadi, a lawyer at Dubai Courts. "It's not the act itself, but the word that causes the harm."

Victims of tarqeem say it leads to feelings of revulsion, and affects local society by adding more defensive barriers to an already stratified culture. While such behaviour is not confined to the Arab world, it is more prevalent where communication between the sexes is limited, said Dr Rima Sabban, an assistant professor of sociology at Zayed University in Dubai.

"This happens more in conservative societies than in open societies, where the means of communication is open between males and females," she said. "When men do this, their macho mentality makes them think they're powerful, but in reality they're projecting themselves negatively. They're not serious. They don't care. They don't have real Arabic and Islamic values." An Emirati woman whose friend was a recent target of tarqeem addressed the issue on the social networking site Twitter. At a mall, men were walking behind the two women repeatedly offering their phone numbers, she said.

"I feel disgusted and actually sorry for them," the 27-year-old communications professional said. "They have no outlet and are deprived of the opposite sex. They are not taught respect or social skills, or have even properly dated." Tarqeem can happen in any public place. Tahani Ahmad, a 25-year-old Emirati network engineer, said she once returned to her car to find a piece of paper on her windscreen with a mobile number on it.

However, tarqeem is not a men-only activity; Ms Ahmad once witnessed a woman trying her hand at it when she was sitting in her brother's car. Some men agree the behaviour is demeaning, especially if it happens to a family member. Abdularahman, an 18-year-old Emirati, said he found tarqeem "cheap and desperate". "I'm completely against it. Every guy who does it should be ashamed of himself because I am sure he would not be pleased if his sister was a victim of it."

Those who take part in tarqeem may do so because they know no better. It is often a result of a lack of discipline and proper upbringing, said Wedad Lootah, an Emirati marriage counsellor in Dubai. "Such behaviour is not suitable as it is uncivilised," she said. "If there was fear of God and fear over his sanctity, the man wouldn't do anything to sacrifice his or the girl's reputation." However, it's hard to tell who might accept being approached and who might not. Tariq, a 26-year-old Emirati, believed shouting out a mobile number was demeaning and that saying "hello" was more appropriate.

"It's hard to have the courage to start a conversation and face rejection," he said. "This entire situation is justified by women not wanting people to know about their relationships and men making sure they don't cause women trouble and don't get into trouble with the law."