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BY EMILY MAY
What would a world without street harassment look like? It’s easy to describe what it would not be but trying to imagine how the world would change in the absence of harassment, groping, public masturbation, assault? Much harder. That is unless you live in Egypt.
“I have lived the dream,” said Abdo Abu El Ela, Programme Director, Al Shehab Foundation for Comprehensive Development at the UN Safe Cities conference this past week in Cairo, Egypt. He continued (translated from Arabic), “While the police were absent for those 18 days, Egyptians organized to protect the streets. Women and men worked together hand in hand – women protected the streets in the morning, men in the afternoons and evenings.” Reports show that over 20% of the protestors were women.
In one story, told by Laila Risgallah, Founder and President of the “Not Guilty” project, a man who was working alongside a young woman turned to her and said, “you know if it were any other situation I would have said different words, but I am not now because we are living for a cause.”
As Americans know well – these 18 days without harassment didn’t last long. On February 11th journalist Lara Logan was brutally attacked by a mob of over 200 men for 30-40 minutes. Activists argue it was the mob mentality that made a world without harassment possible, and that it was that same mob mentality that then turned led to Logan’s assault.
Studies show that 83% of women in Egypt have experienced harassment, 98% of foreign visitors have experienced it (I can asset to that), and 62% of men in Egypt admit to harassing women (ECWR, 2008). Over 52,000 cases of harassment were reported to the police last year, but with only 10% of cases reported, it is estimated that over a half million incidences occurred.
But it wasn’t always this way. Older Egyptians recount stories of the 60s and 70s, when women were free to walk down the streets in mini-skirts without fear of harassment. On the rare occasion that harassment did occur, men would chase down the harasser and shave his head to publically shame him, according to Rebecca Chao, co-founder of Harassmap.
Harassmap is an initiative to map street harassment in Egypt using a powerful cocktail of SMS texting and on-the-ground community organizing. Since launch in December (just one month before the revolution), they have recruited over 400 volunteers who do direct outreach to groups of men on the street, asking them to stand up for people experiencing harassment. The group has already received over 500 reports of harassment, and Hollaback! is working with them to pilot the SMS texting campaign in NYC and (funding depending) in Israel and Mumbai. Harassmap is only one of the inspirational interventions happening in Egypt right now, as a number of activists work to shift the gears of time and shift the culture that has made gender-based violence in public space normalized here.
The film 678 brought mainstream attention to the issue of harassment – and had Egyptians cheering in the theaters. In one screening in Egypt, the directors reported that men laughed at the harassment scenes in the beginning of the film, but by the end of the film they were completely silent and even moved aside to let the women exit the theater first. In a panel I attended in Cairo, the filmmakers announced that they are committed to showing the film for free around the world. They are particularly interested in showing the film in public space – and we’re working on a partnership with them to show the film in the 24 cities in which we work.
On the heels of 678’s success come a new project is on the horizon called “Not Guilty.” The project’s goal is to highlight how sexual violence is not the fault of the victim (a common myth, well, everywhere), and twenty-three episodes have already been filmed. The episodes will be paired to a multi-pronged strategy that includes media, schoolbooks, training and education, and counseling to bring attention to sexual violence in Egypt.
We’re rooting for you, Egypt. You haven’t just imagined a world without street harassment; you’ve lived it. Your history reminds us that street harassment is part of a culture that makes gender-based violence OK, and that this culture can change; and your activism is lighting the path for the rest of the world.
BY EMILY MAY
The announcement was just made in The Times of India today:
“Sexually harassing women or outraging their modesty will soon be non-bailable offences in the state. The government has sought amendment of Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deals with assault or use of criminal force on women with the intent to outrage their modesty, to make such crimes non-bailable offences in Maharashtra.”
If you’re like me you’re just so excited that some kind of progress is being made that you probably read through that paragraph quickly and gleefully, so let’s read that part again slowly: “with. the. intent. to. outrage. their. modesty.” I don’t know about you, but street harassment doesn’t outrage my modesty. It outrages my very being.
I can just see the court cases now: “the victim was a walking hand in hand with her girlfriend, demonstrating a clear lack of modesty,” or “the victim’s short skirt makes clear that she had no modesty to begin with – therefore there was nothing to outrage.” And if we continue to read between the lines, we know that laws like this tend to be disproportionately applied to low-income folks, homeless folks, and people of color. The result is a law that protects the “modest” from society’s most marginalized groups. Is this what progress looks like?
Not so much. But there are some seeds of hope: “‘Besides a stringent law, awareness on the issues related to women is needed to deal with the issue,’ Sail said after the meeting.” YES! Tell it like it is Sail! The government should partner with groups like Blank Noise Project and Hollaback! Mumbai to develop PSA’s and educational seminars in schools. So why aren’t they? My guess: awareness campaigns cost money, laws are free, and this is a recession.
As governments internationally look to address street harassment, they need to be careful to remember that the root cause of street harassment is sexism among many, not the criminal behavior of a few. If we want to truly change a culture that makes the degradation of women OK, it’s going education and awareness campaigns to prevent street harassment from happening in the first place.
Two young guys on a train in Boston, MA. They’re probably drunk, we’re probably heading from the same baseball game. They’ve been hitting on/sexually harassing some college-age girls on the same train car as me without getting any responses.
Next they start glancing over towards me, a butch woman with short hair, and I overhear one of them mutter about my haircut. The other speculates whether I’m a man or a woman. Then the first starts asking “are you a lesbian” first quietly, then a little louder and again, a little louder. Like he’s trying to poke me, force me to react.
I stay silent and plan what to do or say next. I estimate how drunk they are, how heavy they look, and whether I could shove one enough to knock him down if I needed to. My heart’s pounding and I realize this is the third time in as many weeks I’ve faced harassment or derogatory speech for being visibly gay. At the next stop, the guys get off the train and I am relieved, but still angry. I decide that when I get home, I will post this on Hollaback and hopefully my story might help others, or at least make me feel less helpless.
BY EMILY MAY
As I write this, I am sitting on a plane heading back from my trip to Cairo, Egypt, where I was at the UN’s Safe Cities conference. The Safe Cities initiative is working to establish a model to address street harassment and gender-based violence in public space in 5 cities throughout the world using a mix of research, evaluation, media advocacy, policy change, and community engagement. Their concept is that they don’t just want to respond to street harassment, they want to prevent it all together.
I’m not going to lie here – being at a conference exclusively designed to address gender-based violence in public space was pretty dreamy. When we started Hollaback! we’d never heard the term street harassment, and in our search to call it something more legitimate than catcalling, we thought we’d invented the term. We didn’t (the term has been around since 1981, and activists have been working on the issue since the 1920s), but mainstream conversation on street harassment was virtually nonexistent.
Being in a room with over 100 UNWomen staff talking about street harassment, as a legitimate –and solvable – problem made me feel like I was home. It could have only been made better by having our site leaders in the room, but since it was just me this time, I want to share with you some of the initial findings of the scoping studies that local UNWomen sites did to target the problem in their cities:
This research is preliminary, as they are still in year one of their five year plan, but I have high hopes for this initiative. Street harassment is poised to be the next big women’s issue of the coming decade, and these projects will be international models for what is possible.
BY EMILY MAY
I’ve been in Cairo, Egypt this week at the UNWomen Safe Cities conference – and what a week it’s been. There will be more blogging about it tomorrow when I jump on the plane, but in these final hours of the “I’ve Got Your Back” campaign I wanted to tell you one last story: my story.
We’ve been sending personal responses to all our donors thanking them, and this reply really struck a cord with us. The writer anonymously agreed to share it with us.
Thank YOU for everything you do. I only wish I could contribute more. I live in New York City and when I was working in an office I would get harassed almost every day going to or from work. Now I’m a freelance writer and I work from home so I encounter it less on the street but have started experiencing truly frightening things in bars. In the last few weeks, I had a man walk in on me in a bathroom stall (the lock was apparently broken) in an empty women’s bathroom, and just stand there and stare at me for a good ten seconds. He didn’t say anything or act surprised that he’d walked in on me or that he was in the wrong bathroom, and then he just calmly left. A week later, I was at another bar with all male friends and a guy who was alone at the bar, only about five feet away from me, was turning around to look at me every 30 seconds. Sometimes he’d turn his chair around completely and stare for a solid five minutes and listen to what I was saying as though he was in the conversation. When I took my phone out at one point to check my texts and Facebook and such, he took his phone out and pointed it directly at mine, so that it was only like two feet away, and then immediately spun his chair back around as soon as I put my phone away. (That was one of the strangest things and really scared me.) He was completely undeterred by me and all of my friends and my very angry boyfriend giving him nasty looks, and he did all of this for over an hour until I was so uncomfortable that I had stopped talking completely because I didn’t want him listening to me and didn’t want to leave the bar for fear of him following me anywhere, even if I was with other people. I’ve lived in cities before, but have never experienced anything like this, or the level and frequency of street harassment that occurs in New York. I lived in Baltimore for college for four years. I was harassed on the street ONCE, and another man sitting near him got up and started yelling at him, “How dare you speak to her that way?! Have some respect!” So it actually ended up being a rather endearing experience. I’m constantly harassed in New York, always in front of plenty of people, and no one has ever come to my defense here. Not that I can’t fight my own battles, but the acknowledgment of others who witness it that it is not okay would be nice. (What a cruel joke it is that I pay SO much more money to live here than other places and I’m not even treated like a human being when I walk around the city.)
Sorry for venting all of this to you completely unsolicited. I just really hope you know how important this is to so many of us. If you ever have those days that are frustrating or hopeless, we appreciate what you do so much.
We are so close! With only one day to go (39 hours to be exact), we still need to raise a little over $5,000. The flood of supporters that have come through has been truly incredible, and we are so grateful. Just yesterday we raised over $6,000 from over 50 people. If we do it again today we’ll meet our goal. Do it on Thursday and we’ll exceed our goal.
To our supporters: thank so much for getting us this far, and let’s keep this campaign going through the final stretch. Be sure to let your friends and family know about the campaign if you haven’t already, and most importantly, thanks for having our backs. You know we’ve got yours too.
I’ve been scared to drive ever since I was little. So when I announced at the beginning of the spring of 2011 that I was going to get my driver’s license, my friends and family were in disbelief. Imagine their surprise a few months later when at the wonderful age of 23 I proudly showed off my official license.
The first time I drove with my older sister in the car, I pulled up to a stop light next to a black SUV. An ordinary enough occurrence, but when I looked over and saw four boys leaning out of the SUV and making jack-off and cunnilingus gestures at us. I was absolutely stunned at their lack of respect. So stunned in fact, that I unknowingly switched lanes once the light turned green and cut off the person in the red car behind the black SUV full of jerks. The boys in the SUV pointed and laughed out of their windows as the guy in the red car honked mercilessly at me. My sister started screaming at me, saying that she shouldn’t have let me drive. I told her about how stunned I was with the guys making rude gestures at me, and her only response was:
“You’re going to have to get used to it. Guys do that to cute girls.”
I drove the rest of the trip in silence. I don’t want to ‘get used to it’ and I don’t think it’s fair that women have to add one more thing to worry about on the road.
To help build a world where Sara doesn’t have to “get used to it,” donate here to support our “I’ve Got Your Back” campaign.
Rare are summer days in Houston when the weather cools from the oppressively swampy to merely sultry. Whenever such an opportunity presents itself, few would blame me for wanting to slip out of my desk and into the sunshine. I didn’t take a lunch break, anyways. Nobody would mind if I ran to the bookstore for a metaphorical minute.
As I walk along Main Street, between its intersections with Lamar and Dallas, a stranger saunters up to me. His body now merely millimeters from mine, he demands, “Let me pick you up and carry you home. I have to carry you and take you home with me right now.” Loud enough for a 5-person band of onlookers to start quietly paying attention.
I panic. “GO FUCK YOURSELF!” Not the most mature of reactions, but fear and a desire to intimidate preclude creativity. Our audience continues staring.
He shrinks back, raising his volume and desperately whining, “But I have to do SOMETHING to you! I need to take you back to my home and do something. Let me carry you home and we’ll talk about this.”
“GO! FUCK! YOURSELF!” Finally, the man jerks his head away and turns to walk off in the other direction. My voice transcends my meager frame. Gives me power. Authority. A strength beyond whatever it is I’m bench pressing these days. “I AM NOT A PIECE OF MEAT, SIR!” rockets towards his back. Cliché to be certain, and not my proudest moment. But it gets the point across succinctly. A glare shot at the throng transfixed by our encounter. Lips pressed tightly into themselves. Eyes narrowed to nothing more than paper cuts, albeit obscured by prescription sunglasses.
They look away. Huffy. Bored. One man mutters, “Such language…”
Humiliation. An overarching sensation of dehumanization prickles my internals and externals alike. Saline stings the backs of my eyelids. A quaking, shaking blancmange of a thoroughly ashamed, embarrassed and just plain angry young woman. Deliberate encroachment onto my personal space, overtures of sexual violence and a complete lack of disrespect for my autonomy, agency and consent…and they take offense at the language I use to convey my flashpoint rage! He and I provided them with the day’s sensational entertainment, not a pathetic tableau of harassment. I question whether or not their apathy would have finally dissolved had this horrid man attempted to genuinely hurt me.
And I am incredibly fortunate he intended to intimidate more than actually injure, but all the same there exists no compelling justification for his actions (sorry, victim-blamers, but I was wearing a loose-fitting Muppets t-shirt and even more comfortable jeans that day). Nor those who saw fit to treat us as free, live theatre. Their silence gave this man permission to treat another woman with such a callous dismissal of her independence. Their chiding my self-defense enabled yet another incident of public harassment and verbal assault to end up an exercise in shaming the recipient. Of neglecting to change the rhetoric of gender-based violence.
But hey! It only takes something as easy and minor as the complete overhaul of societal perceptions towards street harassment, sexual assault and rape to reverse this attitude! Neither I nor anyone else deserves to inhabit a world where something simple like running to pick up a copy The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks ends up a disheartening lesson in how Americans react when confronted with very public verbal and physical harassment. Public places belong to the public, not just those intending to badger, bully or brutalize the innocent. And that is why those of us with stories to tell – all narratives, be they victim, bystander or a loved one hearing about everything later in the day – must ensure the populace learns of them. Education, not dressing differently or agoraphobia or constantly looking over your shoulder, remains just about the only truly effective, sustainable weapon in our stash.
What? Hollaback NYC is inviting community members and organizations to take a stand against street sexual harassment. For too long, women and girls have been victims of sexual harassment, assault, rape, socio-economic and political violence…. and silence has been the response in many of our communities. During these hot summer days, many look to affirm their “power” through constant street sexual harassment and inappropriate remarks made to women and young girls… If street harassment is “okay,” then other forms of violence are okay. Hollaback says “Enough is enough! It is not okay!”
It is our right to never let anyone make us feel any less than our confident and badass self, so on Friday, July 8th we will be sharing strength, looking to unite forces with community members and organizations to encourage women and girls to…. Hollaback!
Join us! There will be music and speakers….
When? Friday, July 8th, 2011 at 5:30 p.m.
It is time for community members and organizations to build unity and strength to create safer streets, where our women and men of all ages can walk safely and feel free of any type of harassment.