It’s not just catcalling; it’s street harassment. We need to change the language around street harassment so that it’s seen as a serious problem…
…said Rachel, a Peace Corps Health volunteer, during a planning meeting I was in for Camp GLOW for girls. When I heard this, something clicked.
Street harassment is an international problem.
Sexual comments, kissing noises, and “Hey baby” from strangers aren’t “just catcalls.” They are unsolicited attention, it’s harassment.
And it happens to women around the world. A 2004 survey of 632 women in Tokyo revealed that groping in trains, on subways, and in transit stations is rampant. While traveling during rush-hour traffic, nearly 64% of the women in their 20s and 30s said they were groped on their commutes.
In the Philippines, a 2016 Social Weather Stations survey of Quezon City residents revealed that 88% of women ages 18 to 24 experienced sexual harassment at least one time. Thirty-four percent of the women experienced some of the worst of it: public masturbation, flashing, and groping.
Every person should be able to walk to the corner store without feeling objectified and sexualized. What we wear isn’t an invitation for approval or advances.
As a female traveler, I cope with street harassment in different ways.
I encounter it every day. Sometimes I ignore my harassers completely. Other times I respond or put headphones in (even if I’m not listening to music).
Whether you deal with harassment right outside your door or only when you travel, it’s important to know you’re not alone. No one deserves to be harassed, but the harsh reality is that it happens. It’s okay if sometimes you’re at a loss for how to respond. Once in a while I have the perfect comeback, but at other times I’m at a complete loss for words. Every situation is different.
If we want to end street harassment internationally, we need to call it out for what it is.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, and April 10 to 16 is International Anti-Street Harassment Week. In light of this month, we’re spotlighting fierce organizations that fight against street harassment in their own unique ways.
1. In Mexico City, Las Hijas de Violencia (The Daughters of Violence) fight back with confetti and punk rock.
Out of a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll of 15 of the world’s largest capitals and New York City, Mexico City had one of the highest rates of women being verbally and physically abused on buses and trains. Over 60% said they’d been groped or physically harassed. A United Nations report in 2010 ranked Mexico first in the world in sexual violence against women. Mexico City’s subways offer female-only subway cars and buses.
Las Hijas de Violencia are actresses who believe that street harassment is the most blatant manifestation of machista violence in public spaces. They’ve taken the solution into their own hands.
Whenever they are whistled at, yelled at, or made to feel objectified in any way, they run after their harasser, shoot them with a confetti gun, and turn up the speakers to sing “Sexista Punk.” Shooting confetti is a symbolic act to show disapproval of the harassment instead of blaming the woman for attracting attention.
A song and a confetti pistol are light-hearted, yet effective ways to respond to harassment without harming the perpetrator. It surprises the harasser, and the power structure shifts. Normally, they say, the harasser will deny what he did and try to flee the situation after being ridiculed. This is why they perform. Only once did a group of men threaten to kidnap them after Las Hijas answered back, but the men drove away as the women approached them.
Member Ana Beatriz says that instead of ignoring harassment, they respond to it.
If with us responding, we can encourage other women to do the same, it’s ideal. We recommend that you have fun with it so that you’re not left feeling violated after what happened, and you’re able to move on and still have a great day. We certainly don’t think we are going to change the world, but we sure know that we’ve changed ours.
These women are incredibly courageous for confronting harassment in the way that they do, but for some women, responding may not be a safe way to deal with street harassment. If I wanted to take part in this response, I wouldn’t be able to do it alone. Ultimately, that’s the point. For women like Ana, responding with a group of female friends is a way for them to take back public spaces.
2. In New Delhi, women fight back with the Himmat application.
Sometimes street harassment can escalate beyond “Hello, beautiful, give me a smile!” Sometimes, when confronted, street harassers can turn their advances into assault. According to Amnesty International India, in 2013 there was a 26.7% increase in sexual violence reporting from the previous year.
Reporting a crime, if the police are compliant, leads to greater accountability and awareness of crimes against women.
Himmat is an Android app that was devised to make women feel safer when traveling alone. Women can use its features to alert Delhi police of threats. Some features of the app are:
- Call back by police control room
- Video and audio recording
- SMS alerts for family and friends
- Victim’s details and location and a time alert on phone and portal
- Alert on Facebook
While the app is to be used only when there’s a life-threatening situation at hand, it’s a tool that gives women in Delhi a bit more peace of mind.
In order to use the app, the user must register with the Delhi Police website by sharing their name, mobile number, and the names and mobile numbers of a minimum of two relatives or friends. During an emergency, an SMS alert (with audio and video of the situation) is sent to the woman’s contacts, the police control room, and nearby police cars.
While this app is a powerful tool for helping some women feel safe, it has its limitations. Users of the app must be able to afford a phone, have Internet access to use the phone, and be able to access the app while in a dangerous situation.
It’s not a perfect solution, but if it were an option for me, I’d download it. I’d have more peace of mind knowing I was able to use the app as a backup plan in addition to walking home with my keys held tightly between my fingers.
3. In the United States (and beyond!), Tatyana Fazlalizadeh fights back with women’s portraits.
Tatyana asks women what they’d like to say to their aggressors; draws their portraits; and places a bold, thought-provoking caption underneath them. She wheat pastes the images in public spaces for all to see. The portraits fight street harassment by answering offenders (or anyone else who notices the bold messages).
This project is powerful because it exposes women’s voices and faces for all to see, creating a strong presence for them in the streets, where they are oftentimes made to feel uncomfortable, annoyed, and unsafe by harassers.
As a painter, I love how this project turns an annoyance into an art form that gives women a blatant, direct response to the patriarchal forces that objectify and oppress them. I can only imagine how many discussions and questions the portraits have sparked as people walk past them, hopefully encouraging people to think twice about unsolicited comments.
How can you get involved? Tonight, April 15, 2016, is the third annual International Wheat Pasting Night. Join others in a night of wheat pasting portraits in your community. Sign up, and give an optional donation!
4. In Egypt, women fight back by teaming up with men.
HarassMap is an organization with a mapping and reporting tool that allows women who’ve experienced or witnessed harassment and assault to anonymously share and report their experiences. HarassMap works with hundreds of male and female volunteers who believe that sexual harassment is a crime and that the end of harassment in public and private spaces will occur as a result of collaboration between men and women.
The reports that HarassMap gathers are projected on a map, and viewers can click on them to read the full reports. Every woman who reports receives information on free legal services and counseling.
Looking at the map gives you an astounding projection of what women face every day in public. Many of us are used to experiencing and dismissing street harassment as a normal part of our lives. Seeing our fellow females’ collective experiences on a map helps us feel unified in our daily struggle.
Over a 2-year study, HarassMap found that 95.3% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed at least once. They work with local businesses, restaurants, and cafés to designate free “safe areas” that claim they’re free of sexual harassment. By working directly with their communities to establish safe areas and dispelling myths through much-needed conversations, they’re making a steady and sustainable impact.
Whether you’re walking to work or meandering the streets of a foreign country, it’s important to know that you’re not alone when facing street harassment, and it’s inspiring to see the ways some people are fighting back. Whether they respond with confetti guns, art, or community outreach, they’re proving that women deserve peace, no matter where they live or travel. If you’re overwhelmed, feeling like you’re not responding in “the right way,” remember, you don’t have the obligation to respond, or to stay silent. Everyone fights the way they can.
Don’t miss Stop Street Harassment’s online database of resources and 13 ideas to #StopSH, and check out these shareable images and downloadable flyers. Have a story to share? Guest blog (or cross-post content) on Stop Street Harassment.
Print and hand out Cards Against Harassment to explain to your aggressors why your existence isn’t an invitation. These cards were started by Lindsay, a woman living in Minneapolis, Minnesota because just having the cards available made herself and her friends feel a bit more prepared and empowered to navigate public spaces. Her hope is that the cards start a dialogue and encourage people to defend everyone’s right to walk in public spaces without feeling unsafe or objectified.
Did we miss any awesome organizations fighting to stop street harassment? What do you do when you’re harassed on the street? Share in the comments!
Featured image by Unsplash user Paul Garaizar.