When I was a girl, I had a pen pal in New Delhi. I hadn't thought about her in years, until today when I read A Letter from New Delhi in the Washington Post. The author poignantly describes how a young female college student in New Delhi, Avantika Shukla, must carefully consider every moment of her day in public in order to avoid harassment and possible assault. I was a young college student once and often experienced similar problems. Today, at 46 and living in Washington, D.C., I still do. Only now I have to speak regularly with my three teenage daughters about them. My pen pal might be doing the same thing, I thought. And, while I am not hiding in my house, or fearing for my life, I am talking to daughters about what to do and how frequent harassment feels. As with rape, there is nothing Indian about how street harassment works. Before you respond in outrage or with patriotic indignance, "She can't possibly compare being female in the United States with being female in India," hear me out because I would argue that you need to change the scale of your consideration.
If you think that I'm exaggerating, vain, oversensitive, or that female members of my family emit some sort of irresistable "harass-me" phermone, consider reviewing tens of thousands of stories from women all over the world available through Hollaback, Stop Street Harassment, Everyday Sexism, Bell Bajao, the Pixel Project, or from any of these more than 100 global safe spaces projects. On the other hand, you could just look at the Twitter hashtag #shoutingback, which for the last two days has been a continuous scroll of stories.
India is among the worst places in the world for girls and women today. I realize that there is a vast difference between living in Washington, D.C. and living in New Delhi. I'm not writing this to say that what women in India is experiencing is not "real" or not qualitatively and quantitatively different. I'm not walk around nervous-Nelly fashion, feeling anxious and oppressed. But, unlike 69 percent of American women asked, I make eye contact on the street. I confront harassers with humor or anger, if I feel secure enough. I'm a lucky, cheerful, person, living in what is arguably one of the best places and times for the greatest number of women in recorded history. But, even then, we are not even remotely close to where we need to be. I want my daughters to run by the river whenever their father or male relatives and friends feel comfortable doing it. People who think we are "equal enough" lack the imagination necessary to envision this transformative change: We should be free and safe and not have to deal with the issues related to simply "walking while female." Everywhere. So, I write this to express solidarity with girls and women across the globe, with whom I can finally, finally communicate, and to point out the problem with people pretending that what is happening to this girl in New Dehli isn't happening to their own daughters, sisters, mothers, wives everywhere.
If you are a man and feel "gender-tarred" by what I am saying, I understand. My gender is portrayed universally as the lying, scheming, untrustworthy bringer of doom, dishonor, disease and despair to men. It makes a person feel defensive to feel judged by association in these ways. But, consider these two sides of the same coin. It makes zero sense to blame feminism or people (yes, there are men saying what I'm saying, plural) like me for pointing out an obvious fact: In order to ensure our safety as females, all males must be considered at least slightly suspect because of the hateful acts of a few. The same system generating harassers and rapists at warp speed is the one that results in science-denying, all-male congressional panels. It's the system that insists you are little better than a rutting animal who can't control yourself when you see an attractive person. Whereas some women feel that harassment, rape and domestic violence are prices they pay for being female and human, this is the price all men pay for being male and human, even those without a violent bone in their bodies. Most men I know are kind, empathetic, and work hard to do the right thing. Doing the right thing now means allying yourself overtly with your sisters, daughters, mothers and female friends to extend the privileges you have -- to safety, to public life, to power -- freely. More girls and women would stand up for themselves, would stop conforming to self-defeating standards, if they had the least bit of encouragement that men are actually aware of the adaptations they make and are trying to help them. And not just at the harassing moment in which you witness harassment, but, more importantly, when you don't: when you stud-bait other boys and men, or when you, say, feel perfectly comfortable commenting freely on women's bodies -- some of you on national television -- in such a way that every little boy (and girl) watching understands that you think women are trophies.
Violence against women, everything from "harmless" catcalls to gang rape, means one thing which cannot be said enough, and feel free to nuance the hell out of this fact: NOWHERE IN THE WORLD DO GIRLS AND WOMEN FEEL SAFE. Not Steubenville. Not Birmingham. Not Cairo. Not Rio. Not Johannesburg. Not Sydney. Not Brussels. Not Shanghai. Not Kuala Lumpur. Not Los Angeles. Not in Delhi. Not in schools. Not in churches. Not among the strictest of the strict. N-O-W-H-E-R-E. And, while I have friends who are reluctant to allow their sons to walk alone, they acknowledge that the potential for individual harm to boys does not roll up into globally evident and systemic sexualized, domestic and political violence against men perpetrated primarily by women or even by other men. We cannot rely on our current judicial, political, legislative or medical systems to deliver just outcomes. That's why we have to rely on Anonymous to do the work our systems consistently and repeatedly, all over the world, failing to do. That's why women and their male allies are participating in Slutwalks, Meet Us On The Street protests, and anti-rape marches. That is why One Billion Rising has thousands of grassroots events making up its global strike against violence against women in February. It's not like I'm sitting alone in my office dreaming up some half-baked theory because I don't want to clean the house.
Women's rights are human rights and their achievement is a genuinely global issue. I refuse to allow people to divide and conquer women by suggesting that we are too stupid to understand subtleties (maybe even intersections... DUH) related to the local, regional and national manifestations of oppression. Violence is multi-dimensional but violence against women doesn't recognize geographic boundaries drawn on maps used to allocate resources. The only way you can argue that what we experience in Washington, D.C. is different in suppressive effect from what Shukla experiences in New Delhi is to acknowledge the profound degree to which women, with our objectified bodies and our devalued labor, our property-based honor and our body-bound shame, are treated like public resources to be managed by men. The words "our women" aren't sweet nothings, slyly muttered with barely hidden malice on a dim street. They are obvious, loud and clear and they mean everything.
Street harassment, the "gendered contestation" of public space, is simply the very tip of the iceberg of violence used to subjugate women as a class. It is the daily, casual, entirely normalizing regulation of girls and women. Whether they live in D.C. or New Delhi.
Follow Soraya Chemaly on Twitter: www.twitter.com/schemaly