An Interview with Sonia Saraiya of CATCALLED.org: “This is my experience and I don’t think I’m alone.”

BY RITA PASARELL

This past August, Sonia Saraiya and a group of women writers created CATCALLED.org, a “collection of women’s stories about street harassment in New York City.”  Each of the 11 participants wrote a daily log for two weeks, and then responded to each other’s logs for exit interviews.  CATCALLED says street harassment is “an unfair burden placed on women in public spaces” and describes the project as “an attempt to give that struggle a voice.”  Here’s what else Sonia had to say:

1)     This site is great, and the entries are so interesting! What inspired you to create CATCALLED?

I’m not from New York, and I had recently moved here and was so happy about it! Then, the summer started . . . the level of anger I felt in the street just skyrocketed from all of the catcalling I was experiencing.  It had happened to me before, but here, the volume of it was just so much greater. I felt alienated as I walked around doing simple things, like just trying to get home.  The looks, the judgments, the threats inherent in the comments . . . I felt so exposed.  I tried not to pay attention to all of it because it was just too much. Then I thought, “but this is real! This is my experience and I don’t think I’m alone.”  Then, I started talking to other people about it.

2)     Are there any themes that you noticed emerging from the entries? 

Many of the writers said that the process of keeping track of all the street harassment they experienced was extremely emotionally exhausting.  The project made them start paying attention to things they had taught themselves to ignore, because with so much catcalling, it can become too upsetting to confront the reality of the situation.  For instance, many described this sort of auto-pilot mode of changing their habits to avoid street harassment – things like altering their route to avoid feeling vulnerable.

3)     Is there any particular Catcalled entry or writer that sticks out the most for you?

Of course, I was very surprised by writer #11, because I found out she carries a knife.  Participant #6 was also interesting to me. She wrote about how it feels to routinely not be catcalled. And she thinks catcalling is terrible, and the few times it happens to her, she hates it, but she also notices that it isn’t happening, and she connects that to her own self-esteem about how she looks. This is how the culture of street harassment is harmful even for people who don’t get harassed –it affected her self-esteem to not be getting that attention, even though she didn’t really want it anyway.

4)     The exit interviews were especially interesting — can you describe your thoughts on including these?   

I wanted to begin the process of women talking to each other about their experiences. It was a way for a dialogue to start, so they could find common ground, or disagree, and reflect.

5)     Do you remember how you first heard about the anti-street harassment movement?

I was maybe in middle school or high school, and there was this comic strip where catcalling was portrayed negatively.  Up to that point, I only had seen the issue spoken of in harmful ways, in terms of the woman’s fault: she was wearing the wrong thing, in the wrong place, out too late.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sonia! And thanks to Sonia and the CATCALLED team for their great work and for speaking out against street harassment!

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