11/06/2014 03:59 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2015

The Right to React

Two interesting and unrelated things happened last week, both showing us where we stand as a nation when it comes to gender equality. First, the World Economic Forum released its 2014 Global Gender Gap Report, ranking 142 countries on economic, political, education, and health-related factors. The US came in 20th, up from its rank of 23rd last year.

And second, a PSA exposing the common place harassment women suffer when they just walk on the streets went viral. Within the first 24 hours, millions, myself included, had watched the video showing clips of Shoshana Roberts walking around New York City and being harassed by strangers. I admit that my initial thought as I watched the first few seconds of the video was "okay, what's the big deal? This is typical." Yes, complete strangers were asking Ms. Roberts "how are you doing?" or asking her to smile or greeting her with a "what's up beautiful," but such experiences are common place for millions of women.

However, as the video progressed, and I watched clip after clip of Ms. Roberts walking past men who attempted to start conversations with her, who gave her unsolicited and unwelcomed compliments, who berated her for not responding to their advances, who followed her even while she ignored them, my reaction changed from being almost lax to being angry. Angry for Ms. Roberts because all she was doing was walking on the streets of New York City. Angry because I had been in her shoes before and so watching the video felt like I was having an out of body experience. Angry because what she was experiencing was what millions of women endure every single day. We who walk with our eyes on the ground or just straight ahead into the crowd; we who avoid eye contact not because we aren't friendly but because we don't want someone to mistake a simple glance as an invitation for something more; we who just keep walking in silence when random men make their "innocent" comments to us.

So as a viewer of the video, I could not help but feel like I had to advocate for her, and for myself. I wanted to tell the men harassing her to shut up, to mind their business, to leave her alone. No, she doesn't want to talk to you. No, she doesn't want to smile at you. Just leave her alone. Leave us alone.

But my anger was short-lived. Just another video I witnessed through social media. And when the video ended, I moved on to some other post and that was the end of that.

Until the following day, when I read headlines stating that the woman in the "catcall video" was getting rape threats. Rape threats!! In a country ranked 20th for gender equality, in a city that's admired the world over as a melting pot of race, religion, politics, class, and more, an American woman who was harassed could not make a statement about that harassment without being threatened with unimaginable gender-based violence?! How's that for a gender gap?

Let's put aside the fact that Ms. Roberts volunteered to walk around the city for 10 hours, hoping to capture exactly this kind of behavior. Let's also put aside the fact that some men (and even some women) will watch the video and not see any harassment. Let's focus on this: whichever side of the elephant in the room you come out on, the point is that women have the right to voice our opinions about our experiences. We have the right to react.

If nothing else, the PSA created an opportunity for a discussion about a variety of things. The video went viral because most women have experienced such harassment at some point or another in their lives. And most women, like me, just keep walking, quietly. May be I smile, maybe I don't; maybe I respond with a "hello" or "thank you," maybe I don't. And that's what Shoshana Roberts did. She walked for 10 hours in New York City and experienced more than 100 instances of harassment, ranging from whistles to catcalling to being followed, by men who clearly thought they had the right to treat her this way and that she would and should appreciate their behavior.

But if she does not appreciate the behavior, she should be allowed to say so. If she wants to go for a walk without interruption from strangers, she should be allowed to say so. However loudly or passively she wishes to express her annoyance, irritation, or rage about the harassing behavior directed towards her, she should be allowed to say so. Women should have the right to say when we don't like how we are being treated; to stand up for ourselves and each other; to say that we don't welcome every compliment, statement, question, or comment thrown our way by random men as we walk down the street. Tell me I exaggerate, tell me I'm overly sensitive, tell me I'm wrong; whatever your opinion is, share it with me and then give me the opportunity to share my thoughts with you. That is what should happen in a modern and civil society. To dismiss women's experiences and emotions and to threaten us with violence is an attempt to take away our voice and to push us back into submission. It's a power play where the man gets to have the final say about how the woman is feeling, starting with telling her to smile and ending with a threat if she doesn't.

Gender equality is still a dream for women around the world, including in the US. According to the WEF report, the US is a world leader on gender issues relating to enrollment in higher education and in economic participation and opportunity. Yet our strength in those areas juxtaposed with the video and the aftermath of the video we saw last week demonstrates that there is work to be done, the least of which requires creating and fostering an environment for open and honest conversations. And such conversations can only be had when women are free to speak about the inequality and when their voices are heard, not muffled.