March 18-24 is International Anti-Street Harassment Week and it should be taken seriously as a matter of equality, access to public space and civil rights. "Meet Us On The Street" is the rallying call for International Anti-Street Harassment Week, a movement started by the organization Stop Street Harassment. Last year, marches took place in Cairo, Kabul, Washington, Philadelphia, Delhi and other cities around the world.
"Harassment restricts girls' and women's access to public places," explains Holly Kearl, author of "Stop Street Harassment" and founder of the week long project. "This is not what we want for the next generation of girls. This is a time for people to raise awareness about the issue and create community-based solutions to make public places safer for everyone."
What do you think street harassment is about? Sex? Benign flattery? Attraction? Women who can't just suck it up and deal?
It's power. Catcalls, sexist comments, public masturbation, groping, stalking and assault: gender-based street harassment makes public places unfriendly, frightening and dangerous for many girls, women, and LGBQT people.
It's power to control public spaces. Power to alter paths. Power to shame, scare and intimidate. Power to define what is safe and what is not. It's the power to say: "I'm entitled to touch you, comment on your body, coerce you to smile, control your movement." Even when women perceive catcalls as flattering, they are nonetheless aware that it's an unpredictable degree away from possible harm.
Regardless of race, class, ethnicity, education, age and especially, clothes, women experience varying degrees of street harassment. More than 90 percent of girls and women surveyed internationally report being harassed. This is yet another "women's issue" that is in reality a men's problem. Women are not harassing men on streets around the world. At the very least, given the universality of women's experiences, it should be thought of as a public health issue. This does not mean all men are harassers. But, most are quiet bystanders who are unaware of the ubiquity of the experience for women and the ways in which women learn to adapt and change our behavior in public every day. Most women just consider it the price of being female, some women fight back verbally or physically. Organizations like Stop Street Harassment and Hollaback, which created crowd-sourced, mobile technology applications for documenting and locating harassers, are finding creative ways to confront the problem.
Street harassment includes verbal and physical assault by a full spectrum of men whose primary filter for understanding women is to sexualize them. It can come from everyone from religious conservatives to sexually aggressive street thugs who "man-handle" them. It's all gender-bullying.
"Just as they got close to us, one of them grabbed me by the arm and put his hand on my chest and felt and grabbed me then released me seconds later and continued walking as if nothing happened. My cousin was right next to me, but neither of us could speak a word, I couldn't bring myself to shout, I was so scared." - Lebanon
"I went to the gym today and on my way there some guy said, 'Nice hat,' as I'm accustomed to hearing, but then he scares me a little when he leans into the door and opens it as I attempt to get to the gym, then says next to my ear, 'Take care of yourself baby.'" - New York
"I experienced four incidents on a Saturday evening in the space of ten minutes while walking down a relatively isolated street (for pedestrians) but it was fairly busy with lots of cars on the streets ... being called a 'slut' had already riled me so much that I reacted badly to the other minor 'call outs.' I wish there was something I could do to against these 'drive by' harassers." - Sydney, Australia
"The only time I go out is when I am with my partner and sometimes I still get kisses blown at me, and stares." - Livorno, Italy
Maybe you think all these women are wilting violet types, like last December's 8-year old second grade Israeli girl who, on her way to school, was followed by a group of self-righteous, arrogant, adult men who felt entitled enough to spit on her and call her a whore.
Or, maybe women wearing pants and skirts on their way to work in Malawi who were stripped naked and beaten up by men on the street. "Attacking women in trousers is an outrage. We are a democracy, they're taking us back to the dark ages." said Seodi White, a rights activist and protest organizer.
Or, women in Tahir square who were surrounded by dozens of men, freely grabbing them in public. "We looked around to find that we were the only women and were starting to get groped by the crowd," said one woman. "I felt as a woman that everything, my dignity, was being taken away from me." This behavior is, of course, firmly part of a spectrum of entitlement to women's bodies that resulted in the horrific rape of reporter Lara Logan.
As you can tell, the list of possible examples is endless.
Not only does harassment limit women's movement in public, but it acculturates girls and women to be fearful of men, because they can never be sure which men will act in frightening ways. It also causes girls to be more preoccupied with appearance and heightens feelings of body-shame. Common blame-the-victim attitudes magnify harm.
In India, where most women (that would be 98 percent reporting) deal with taunts and groping on a daily basis, street harassment is endemic and debilitating. It's called Eve teasing or Eve baiting -- patronizing and trivializing nicknames in either case. Last year, men and women started riding segregated trains so that women could get to work without fear. The Gender and Space project stages public interventions. In Egypt, another country where harassment is extensive (83% of Egyptian women, 98% of foreign women experience it) and, of course, where reporter Lara Logan was repeatedly publically raped, women are using Harassmap, a mobile technology that tracks the location of sexual harassment events.
Without a doubt, this post will get comments along the lines of "this is not a problem for 'our' women." But, this problem is not limited. Not limited to poor women. Not limited to scantily clad women. Not limited to Asia, Africa and South America. Women in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe are by no means immune and report similarly high rates of harassment. And, yes, I know that when women are complimented on the street, in peaceful, flattering ways; it's nice to feel attractive. But it's important to remember where that interaction falls in the broader picture of how women's bodies are seen as public property for anyone to comment on. I, for one, would give up every flattering and benign comment and "cat" call that has been sent my way to eliminate even one of the hatefully crass and jarringly violent ones. I know that for every "Hey, beautiful," directed at my daughters now, there's a more malevolent comment lingering around the corner. So not worth it.
Meet Us On The Street takes place March 18-24. Here are 10 ways you can get involved:
- Start a Meet Us On The Street program in your neighborhood - anywhere around the world. The Meet Us On The Street Tools resource is full of fliers, handouts, signs and more in multiple languages. Print, post, share.
- Educate yourself about why street harassment is important and why it shouldn't be ignored. Stop Street Harassment has an excellent resource center. The site also provides an extensive list of a network of more than one hundred international organizations fighting street harassment.
- Use technology, like iHollaback's mobile apps, or Harassmap and others like it, to document, identify and map harassers.
- Talk about street harassment openly with friends, family, coworkers, classmates, children and neighbors. Share your stories with them. Think about what a safe community would look and share that vision with them. Men in particular are often surprised to learn the ways in which their mothers, sisters, aunts, wives, girlfriends and daughters adapt to this problem.
- Raise awareness online through social media.
- Explore the issue of street harassment in an entertaining, compelling ways to generate discussions about street harassment and public safety.
- Figure out what is going on in your community. Conduct a survey, community safety audit, or create a mapping project to document where street harassment occurs.
- Talk to your sons and daughters. Here is a list of six simple things you can do to educated boys, girls and communities of teachers, coaches, mentors and others about street harassment.
- Educate and engage your community. Hold an awareness-raising event, march, or create street team activism (including organizing people to hand out fliers). Show a relevant documentary or hold a speak-out at the event to generate awareness and a discussion.
- Last, but definitely not least, be a MALE ALLY. Bystander intervention my men is very important and creates safer, civil environments. Organizations like Men Can Stop Rape are dedicated to using men's strength to create cultures free from violence and coercion of women.
Follow Soraya Chemaly on Twitter: www.twitter.com/schemaly