Sunday, 6 March 2011

Street harassment

I am not generally on my soapbox too much on this blog but I think it's time, especially with International Women's Day coming up. This post was inspired by this Guardian article on the Hollaback! initiative. Hollaback! aims to empower women to confront street harassment. The international movement was inspired by a woman who photographed a man masturbating in the train across from her and, as the police were uninterested, posted it on Flickr.
Men who harass, says Gray, are defensive and confused when confronted. May also points to numerous examples of men being surprised when challenged: "They say, 'But I love women – I have a daughter!' They often have no idea that what they're doing hurts women." Hollaback! isn't just about fighting back but about rebuilding the foundations of what people consider appropriate public behaviour.
Let me just recount briefly my experiences of street harrassment, beginning with the least offensive and working up. Apparently I naturally have a rather serious expression when walking along on my own (I think that walking along on your own giggling away to yourself is more unusual, personally, but whatever). Apparently this isn't good enough for some men, who call out variations on "Cheer up, it might never happen" and "Smile!".
Then there's the "compliments" which men in Latin America feel obliged to pay on a daily basis. It happened often in Buenos Aires, more often in Quito, and was absolutely unrelenting in Lima. Day after day, multiple times a day, men would ask to be my friend, tell me I was beautiful, tell me they loved me, whistle at me, ask me where I was going, and on, and on, and on. Was I flattered? No. I longed to be invisible. I covered up more than necessary for the weather, I hunched my shoulders, I looked at the ground, and of course I never, ever, made eye contact with anybody. Not that that stopped it. I've had my way across a footbridge blocked by a man insisting he was just being friendly, and I've been followed by a wealthy-looking male in a flashy SUV.
And I've also experienced the man masturbating in a train carriage late at night. That one was in Europe.

I never confronted any of those men. I just assumed that that would make it worse, and also could be dangerous. Hollaback! has this to say on that:
Question: Confronting street harassers can be dangerous. What about safety issues?

Answer: While everyone is vulnerable to stranger rape and sexual assault, studies show that those who are aware of their surroundings, walk with confidence and, if harassed, respond assertively, are less vulnerable. Nevertheless, direct confrontations with street harassers may prove extremely dangerous, particularly alone or in unpopulated spaces. While it is each individual’s right to decide when, how, and if to Holla Back, do keep issues of safety in mind. Upon deciding to photograph a harasser, you may consider doing so substantially after the initial encounter and from a distance, ensuring the harasser is unaware of your actions. [source]

I am not sure exactly what the answer is. I would still be very wary of confronting a harrasser in a different culture unless I was very sure of what I was saying, where I was going, where there were other people who might help me, and so on. In general, it's worth pointing out that calling on other people for support, middle-aged women in particular, is sometimes helpful. I do know that I would think about the treatment I received differently having read about Hollaback! The campaign has a Buenos Aires branch:
Twenty-nine-year-old Argentinian Inti Maria Tidball-Binz has kickstarted Hollaback! in her home city of Buenos Aires. "Spanish-speaking countries call street harassment piropo, which unhelpfully also means a short poem that compliments the recipient," says Binz. "For this reason, the question I am asked most frequently is why am I so against the 'harmlessly flirtatious' piropo. Street harassment is not a poetic artform but rather on the scale of a kind of systematic violence against women."
It's online here - the group has translated "Hollaback" as "Atrévete!" (Dare!).

So come on ladies and gents, let's keep chipping away for social change and let women walk down the street in peace. Is that so much to ask?

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