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BY AISHA ZAKIRA, Director of Hollaback! Mumbai. (This piece is cross-posted from Hollaback Mumbai)
Our apologies for all the quiet on our end, but we’re back and ready for some serious snap, crackle and pop – HOLLAstyle. We have a lot coming up, but first, we wanted to talk about Umang Sabarwal’s initiation of SlutWalk Delhi, and the issues surrounding the first Asian protest of the movement against the belief that any aspect of a woman’s appearance might explain or excuse sexual violence. It’s an incredibly bold move. And before I start my spiel, I should say that my hat is off to Ms. Sabarwal for this incredibly brave leap of faith.
When a movement that was initiated in a Western country is brought to India, there will be an inevitable mélange of frenzied backlash, unbridled fervor and everything in between. Many a raised eyebrow have I seen. The main issue reiterated by the media is the use of the word ‘slut’ in the Indian context. As journalist Annie Zaidi said “on the street, it’s never thrown at you. You’re never called a ‘slut.’ It’s hard to reclaim a word that isn’t used.” She is absolutely right. The word is generally understood and used by those in the upper echelons of society who have a closer proximity to western culture. It isn’t like verbal expression isn’t used in the wide and wonderful spectrum of harassment (earlier today I was harassed by a group of men, one of whom called me a baigan, an eggplant) but the focus is generally on a woman’s body as a commodity in the present tense, rather than on her sexual history. It often feels like the focus is on how your body will be used, not how it has been used.
Moreover, SlutWalk is primarily about the desire to dress as one pleases, an issue that is often seen as irrelevant to the vast majority of Indian women in the face of more salient issues like basic workplace safety. The concern is that this will be a space accessible to wealthy women, but ideologically closed to women from every other strata of society. I also wonder about the accessibility of SlutWalk in a culture in which the honor and the – dare I say it? – morality of a woman is inextricably linked to the honor of her family and her community. I am concerned about the number of women who will not participate in SlutWalk out of fear of backlash from family and the wider community. To walk in public protest against attitudes that are so deeply ingrained into society is groundbreaking, but who has the power and space to actually participate? Will it be that the only women who can participate are those who have the economically privileged space to do so? What will that mean for those who do not feel they can participate? Journalist Bishakha De Sarkar argues that there is no reason why we can’t have many movements at different levels of society. I’m with her here; I do believe that different initiatives can act as threads that intertwine to form a stronger rope. My only concern is if one of the opening initiatives in this movement makes many women feel alienated from this discussion, then are we shooting ourselves in the foot from the get go?
I think SlutWalk needs to be one thread of a multi-stranded rope. It needs to take place in tandem with other movements to give all women a number of options by which to make noise about harassment. SlutWalk is an incredible movement, but all movements need to be localized. They need to speak to the needs of people in different cultures and contexts so that they can be as useful as possible.
But even if SlutWalk is not localized in name, the movement is ultimately about fighting the attitude that perpetuates harassment. I keep coming back to a quote from Umang Sabarwal, “the way the men look at you, you feel like meat.” This is what it comes down to: feeling like meat. Feeling ashamed and powerless. Feeling like you are not the sum of your ideals, your opinions, your experiences and whatever else you decide, you are just the capacity of your physical body as a sexual object. India is too quiet about street harassment. The world is too quiet about street harassment. And even though SlutWalk is primarily focused on women being able to wear what we want without fear of harassment or abuse, I have a feeling that Sabarwal would remind us that this is one aspect of a wider struggle against the attitude that says that women are less than, and should stay that way. For this reason, I’m all about SlutWalk Delhi. There are issues with this, but we need to start somewhere, and the prospect of women taking to the streets of India’s capital in protest of an attitude that has for centuries served to silence is undoubtedly a beautiful beginning.
First, I heard Emily May , Executive Director of Hollaback! speak at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance’s annual 3 day retreat in Harrisonburg, Virginia this week. Great presentation, by the way.
Now for the story: I was driving home from the retreat and stopped in the little town of Front Royal Virginia to buy some coffee. I pulled my car over, parked on Main Street, proceeded to get out of the car, and cross at a pedestrian crosswalk. A carload of young 20 somethings stopped – one of the boys in the backseat rolled down the window and made some guttural noises and then said ” Oh, baby, lookin good”. I am a 52 year old female. I stopped in the middle of the crosswalk and said ” young man, you are really being inappropriate and cat calls are insulting and violate women of any age. I am old enough to be your mother. How would you like it if someone was disrespecting your mother or your sister? How do you think the noises you are making would make them feel? Furthermore those ridiculous noises you are making with the stupid editorial remarks make you look like a Neanderthal. I am certain your parents did not raise you to be a Neanderthal”.
Please keep in mind, that during my dissertation I was standing in the middle of a pedestrian crosswalk, holding up traffic, and not allowing this particular car to pass. I actually drew a small crowd. When, I was finished I crossed the street, walked into the coffee shop, and the car pulled away.
Many years ago, in the late 70’s, a group of feminists in Chicago went to a local construction site where the workers made obscene gestures and remarks to women as they walked by. The women climbed the corner for about a week, lining up, and yelling at the men making inappropriate remarks. The women would “hey baby” the men that harassed the women. Every time the men grab their crotch or make an inappropriate gesture at a woman walking by, the women on the corner would do the same. It was quite empowering for the women of course; the cat calling construction workers were eventually silenced and looked like fools.
Many years ago I would holler back, but overtime I learned to ignore insulting and degrading remarks and gestures made by men. Hollering back felt damn good.
It was a sunny day and I was waiting on a friend. She was taking a driving lesson and would be finished in about an hour so I bought lunch and sat down on a stone fountain/monument in the middle of the town square. When I sat down there was a couple sitting on the other side of the fountain (they had left sometime before I had finished eating) and lots of people sitting in the outdoor areas of the nearby restaurants and cafés.
I was listening to music and had just finished eating when an elderly man (around 65-75 perhaps) came up to me and seemed to want to say something, so I politely stopped my music and took out the head phones from my ears. He asked something about the weather and I answered conversationally.
See, the thing is that elderly people seem to enjoy talking to me and I’m used to them starting conversations when we’re waiting for the bus, so this wasn’t anything strange for me, and I rather like the conversations myself.
But this man suddenly asked if he could just say one thing, to which I confused said that sure, of course he could. He said that my breasts were beautiful, big and beautiful. I didn’t know how to respond so I smiled awkwardly and thanked him, and he seemed to see my discomfort because he started talking about other things again. But then soon after he returned to talking about my body, and asked if there wasn’t a special boy for me (to which I dearly wish I had told him I preferred girls) to which I answered negative, and he took that as a clue to talk about how I needed a good boyfriend, and I wouldn’t have to worry, because there are surely someone out there, and so on.
And then started talking about how some young girls could be the company of older men and get money for it, and he talked about his own ‘prowess in bed’ (and this is where I got really, really uneasy and started to get freaked out) and gave some very unsubtle hints that he would give me money to have sex with him. I, still very politely, said that I didn’t need any money and I would much rather have a job than be one of those girls, but he persisted and commented my body more.
I then decided I couldn’t stay there longer and picked up my cellphone, to which he asked if I was going to call the police. I said I wasn’t, I was just going to check on my friend that I was waiting for, because she was late, and proceeded to have a false conversation in which I agreed to meet her on the way, and politely said good bye to the old man. But that wasn’t enough, because before I got away he grabbed my hand and tried to kiss me, but I pulled away and hurriedly walked away. There was still at least 45 minutes before my friend’s lesson was finished, so I walked to a park a few minutes away to wait for her there instead. When she finally got there I told her about it and we joked and were shocked about it and that was basically it, except that I didn’t want to go back to that square in case he would be there.
Now, several weeks later I’ve started to feel uneasy around every elderly man and I’ve found myself thinking about going other ways so I don’t have to go through that square. This annoys me so much, because they’re older men and I’m not a small, petite, or weak girl, and they wouldn’t be able to do anything towards me. That man wouldn’t be able to do anything against my will.
But sometimes I feel almost scared of going to that place, scared I’ll meet him. And this pisses me off so much.
My boyfriend was working an early shift and I’d stayed over the night before. When he left at half four I got the bus to town to catch my bus home. Whilst waiting at the stop a man tapped me on the shoulder and told me he liked my nostril piercing. He asked where I’d been so I told him, thinking he was coming on to me and if he knew I had a boyfriend he’d back off. Not so. He asked how I could look so down when I’d had a “night of passion”. I ignored him. He then started asking me if my boyfriend “fucked me good”. I told him I wasn’t going to talk about that, but he kept on until my bus came. He then got on the same one. He sat in the seat behind me and carried on asking me more gratuitous questions about my sex life. I kept telling him I wasn’t talking about that with him, but he wouldn’t stop. The one comment that stands out is when he made an action signifying oral sex and asked “when he does this to you, does he make you come?” I was so disgusted. I told him that was none of his business, and he told me “I’d make you come”. Thankfully he got off at the next stop, but I didn’t stop thinking about it for days.
Another incident happened at the same bus stop, just about a week later. I was walking from there to the stop to catch the bus to my boyfriend’s, minding my own business, when a man stood in front of me as I walked past and said “they’re some strong thighs you’ve got there tonight,” staring at my legs. I don’t know what he thought gave him the right to comment on my body; it’s my body, it’s not there for his enjoyment.
I was walking home from school today and from the corner of my eye, an older man walking past me reached out. I didn’t know what he was doing, then he grabbed my left breast really hard. I didn’t know what to say. I felt so scared and angry… there were a lot of people standing around outside of a bar and no one said or did anything. Hey you old, horrible man: I don’t care where you’re from, I don’t care what culture you grew up in, I don’t care what norms you’re used to, I don’t care if you’re drunk: YOU MAY NOT TOUCH ME. Ever.
I made it almost a year without getting harassed, and Spain is notorious for it’s sexism and domestic violence.
The next time, I will be braver. I will be prepared. I will punch the asshole right in the mouth. This is MY body and it is MY property and scum like you don’t deserve to live.
Last Saturday, on June 11th, the Lesbian Group Kontra, Iskorak and Domine (an NGO) organized the first Gay Pride in Split, Croatia. The theme of was the right for the protection of same-sex couples’ family life. Around the 150 – 200 pride parade participants between 8000 – 10000 people gathered and proceeded to insult, threaten, and throw various objects and tear gas at the participants. Approximately 600 police officers were on duty, but they didn’t stop the insults and throwing of objects that have hurt several participants. Before and after Gay Pride several hate groups have organized throughout Croatia, threatening the LGBTIQ folks using public signs and the internet, and now they are calling for a new wave of violence at the Gay Pride that will take place this Saturday in Zagreb. The safety of LGBTIQ folks in public spaces in Croatia is currently under question.
TO THE ORGANIZERS OF GAY PRIDE IN ZAGREB AND SPLIT
HOLLABACK! and the global Hollaback! community wishes to express its support to all organizers and participants of Gay Prides in Split and Zagreb. The Gay Prides represent a peaceful civil gathering aimed at raising awareness of the discrimination against LGBTIQ people and fighting against the discrimination.
HOLLABACK shares with the Gay Pride organizers the goal of making public spaces free of violence and safe for all people, where everybody is able to fulfil their right for a peaceful public gathering and statement of their causes.
We condemn the violence against the Gay Pride participants in Split and all other types of violence in public spaces, and ask authorities to carry out their duties in the same, responsible way for all citizens, as well as to secure public space for everybody, regardless of their sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, race, beliefs or any other.
Please show your support for Hollaback! Croatia by leaving a comment on their blog.
I was walking along the sidewalk when two individuals came out of a house with a small pit bull puppy. I smiled at the puppy. As I passed them they started yelling “Come here, bitch” loudly. Clearly it was aimed at me, but they thought they were being sly because of the dog. It’s a dangerous neighborhood, so I just ignored them, but I’m filing a complaint with the Police Dept.
Sexual Harassment as a Daily Work Hazard
Imagine having a job that exposes you to sexual harassment everyday, merely because you are wearing a certain uniform ~ and probably not a very revealing one, either. It’s the symbolism of it, that seems to attract the unwanted attention. If you’re a maid, you might have to put up with all sorts of inappropriate behavior from your hotel guests. Just look at the major cases in the news lately ~ former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Mahmoud Abdel-Salam Omar, former chairman of Egypt’s Bank of Alexandria both accused of similarly heinous crimes involving maids. Both of them powerful men, who no doubt felt a sense of boundless entitlement, especially in the presence of a “lowly” maid.
And for the record, maids actually prefer to be called room attendants, and there are more than 10,000 of them working in New York City every day. Considering the way maids are still viewed by a certain segment of society, it’s probably a wise decision to distance oneself from that term. The maid profession and maids themselves have long been the object of sexual fantasy, and you can find myriad websites devoted to this fetish. Mostly the sexual images revolve around being a scantily-clad “French” maid, which would seem to preclude harassment of the modestly dressed, modern-day hotel worker. But erotic obsessions die hard, and this particular one is probably a throw-back to french theatrical farce. The master of the household would chase the maid around the bedroom, who would (of course) succumb to his advances, many times against her will.
This show of sexual dominance, in the form of a cat-and-mouse game, is still romanticized in popular culture. Go into any sex shop, and you’ll find racks of french maid outfits for role-play. And in movies and TV, there are plenty of examples of women getting into a maid costume to spice up their sex life, like in Friends with Money and 30 Rock, both with Jennifer Aniston. So the prevalence of these images, normalizing maids as sex objects, definitely does not serve the safety of room attendants.
Peter Ward, the president of the New York Hotel & Maid Trades Council, told The Wall Street Journal that while cases involving outright sexual assault are rare, sexual harassment is a daily hazard of the job. Room attendants often endure exhibitionism from male guests who decide to “surprise” them when they come in to clean the room. Propositioning is also a common problem, making workers feel degraded and unsafe. And there is something in the psychological set-up of it, of a woman coming into a man’s bedroom, that may subconsciously invite disaster: the bed is right there, the door may be locked behind you, and most hotel rooms are sound-proofed now. It’s a potentially dangerous work environment for women, and finally more is being done about it.
Legislation has been introduced to require New York State hotel owners to provide employee sexual harassment training, and establish a hotel employee bill of rights. It would also protect employees from retaliation if they speak up about abuses, which was a major reason why many room attendants did not come forward in the past. Many hotels are now issuing panic buttons as well, which will immediately alert hotel security of a threatening situation. It’s about time that the work force of room attendants, overwhelmingly female, can get the help they need to do their jobs in a safe and supportive work environment. It’s hard enough being the object of sexual harassment, merely because one is a woman in this world. It must be doubly hard when the image of your profession puts you at risk.
I was sitting on the subway, decided to take a 5 minute nap since the ride across the Manhattan Bridge is always a long one. As the train slows down I open my eyes only to find a man standing in front of me with his penis out, masturbating right in my face. This was in the early morning rush hour of barely 9am.
This man had a pony tail, tattoo sleeve on both arms. Looked to be in his 30s.
I was so disgusted and couldn’t even muster a response. I got up from my seat and moved to the other end of the train. I’m not sure if anyone saw anything but no one sure as hell said anything or warned me that this perv was doing this right in front of my face.
Q. Catcalled: What would you say to a young women who gets catcalled often during the summer? I live in the city, and as the weather gets warmer, catcalling gets more frequent. Although I dress normally (typically shorts and a blouse in the summer), I find that I’m yelled at by old men and young men, standing on corners, driving by me, etc. It makes me tense, and now when I walk down the street, I see every man as a potential threat. It’s annoying and demeaning, but I know I can’t haul every weirdo on the street to a sensitivity class. How should I deal?
A: Wait, my dear, just wait. When I walk down the street with my lovely teenage daughter, men passing in trucks will honk their horns and make appreciative kissing sounds at her. They apparently think the prune standing next to her is deaf as well as old. Yet, their catcalls spark a vestigial memory in me—a couple of decades ago I used to hear vocal judgments from men. At the time it was annoying. Yet given their absence, I have to admit it wasn’t all bad.Since today is apparently the “men are pigs” day at the chat, this also falls in the category of there’s nothing you can do but ignore it. And maybe a catcall is better than finding you’re being photographed and your image swapped around by horny married men.