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I’m an American living in Cameroon, and I have to walk 10 minutes to work everyday. I can do this by crossing a busy traffic circle and risk getting hit, or walking around and passing groups of guys hanging about. At least once each way everyday I get some form of verbal harassment unless I walk with my dad or brother. They yell ‘mon cherie’ or ‘ma belle’, and often openly gape at me in a sexual way. I’m 17, and needless to say this makes me extremely uncomfortable that I can’t even walk to work without being harassed. Sometimes I will just chance the roundabout to avoid them.
My friend and I were walking to get French fries down the street from her house. As we passed a shopping plaza a man in a car stopped and shouted at us “HEY HOES! HEY! HOW MUCH?? 5$?” and kept shouting. She yelled back that we weren’t hoes and I flipped the finger at him and kept going. And this wasn’t the only harassment we dealt with that night either. Walking home two other men in separate cars shouted at us and another stopped his car in front of us as we crossed the street and gestured for us to get in his car. We firmly declined and continued on our way.
Opening up fields of awareness, Part 2
Last week this column talked about the need to become more aware in public, in an effort to avoid being the target of unwelcome interactions with strangers. If we keep in mind that the people around us everyday on public transportation and out on the street could be in any mental state whatsoever, we can more easily pick up signals that something is wrong before we are victimized. But many situations that women in particular face are unavoidable, because the predator has singled us out for one reason: that we are women moving through the world alone. Today we’re going to talk about premeditated violence, in contrast to being “in the wrong place, at the wrong time.” One situation that many Hollaback! readers have experienced is being stalked.
Stalking is defined as “the willful, malicious and repeated following and harassing of another person,” and can occur in public or private spaces, over the phone, or even at work. Today we’re going to isolate our discussion to the kind of stalking that many women experience, which is being stalked by someone who you either don’t know at all, or someone with whom you have only very superficial contact. But first let’s discuss what stalking is, and what it isn’t: stalking is about power and control over the target, and it’s not simply about being fascinated with someone. Think back to a circumstance when either you, or perhaps a friend had been stalked by somebody, male or female, it doesn’t matter ~ you probably felt harassed, and that you were definitely giving the harasser clear signals that you didn’t want that interaction. I can remember being stalked by a security guard in college, and erroneously thinking that I could ignore the unwelcome advances ~ until the night came when that person entered my dorm at around midnight, banged on my door repeatedly, and slipped a picture of a place where that person wanted us to go on vacation together. I remember standing frightened and frozen inside my dorm room, which was locked, thank God, and then going to security the next morning to report the incident. The guard was fired, which I felt badly about, but considering the violation of boundaries involved, I now think it was a good idea. But I digress ~ you too probably have your own stories, and that is just one concrete example of how someone who knows you only in passing can not only get the wrong idea, but can take that idea to the extreme.
As a very young woman, I didn’t really know how to handle it at the time, and “nip it in the bud” so to speak, as I would now. If you have at least a superficial relationship to your harasser, give them a direct and firm rejection, immediately letting them know that no further contact is welcome or even permissible. This is often the safest approach. If they persist in their advances, you can then go to security, human resources, and so on. But what if you are stalked in public, which means that you don’t know your harasser? Many women are followed down the street, while they’re out jogging, or even in the grocery store. This is really the scariest situation, because your harasser is a complete unknown, who conceivably has the power and intention to do you great harm. So how to identify a stalker, and what to do about it: A stalker can look like anybody, but the feeling they give is one of menace, that they are the predator, and you are the prey. You often know when you’re being followed, either just with someone’s eyes, which can be uncomfortable, or if someone is literally going everywhere you are, no matter what your pattern of movement. The best way to determine this is to change direction suddenly, going in the opposite direction, or into different stores if you’re in a shopping district. Usually four to five direction changes would give you an accurate read on the situation.
If you are unable to avoid the person, and they start to catch up to you on foot in a public space, use the power of your voice. Turn around and yell, “I don’t know you! Why are you following me?” Make sure that others are within earshot, and can see that you are in distress. If you call attention to yourself, it will also call attention to the would-be harasser/attacker, which they definitely don’t want. Many victims of stalking would prefer not to have to “make a fuss,” but when someone systematically invades your personal space, you’ve got to assume the worst is yet to come, and get LOUD. If you make a mistake, so what ~ you probably won’t know, because the typical predator reaction is to deny that they were stalking you/harassing you/touching you in the first place. Picture a man’s hands going up in the air, saying, “Hey lady, calm down! Don’t flatter yourself, you crazy b____!” And fortunately it doesn’t happen that often, but wouldn’t you rather be called a crazy b for a moment, so you can get out of the situation safely? I know I would, and as you already know, I’ve already had to make that decision. Many times, standing up for ourselves is not easy at all, which is what a sexual harasser or would/be attacker knows and uses to his advantage. This isn’t a pleasant thought, and I certainly don’t advocate going around paranoid, but as women we’ve got to realize that there are malevolent individuals out that we need to be aware of, and act accordingly for our self-protection.
About 10 years ago (~2001) while I was living in Alexandria, VA, a friend and I decided to hit the Target store. I drove, and after parking we walked through the parking lot towards the store. As we neared the store, a car coming from our right slowed and stopped as we approached it I thought, “how nice, he’s stopping to let us pass in front of him.” How wrong I was. As we stepped in front of his car, I looked over to see the male driver with his penis out, masturbating madly with a huge grin on his face. I was still holding my keys in my hand, and I was so angry I acted without thinking. I jammed my keys into his car hood as we walked past, leaving a huge gouge in the paint all the way across. He didn’t do a thing…didn’t yell, didn’t honk, didn’t say a word, and we continued into a store. I still have fantasies about what I could have done with a can of pepper spray, given that his window was open!
I was groped by a man on a bicycle two days in a row in Astoria. Considering I have lived here for 3 years and have felt very safe, this is really shocking and difficult to comprehend.
The first incident happened on the corner of 43rd Street and 30th Avenue around 3:30 while I was walking to the gym. A man on a bike was riding on the sidewalk towards me. He stopped directly behind me while I was waiting for the light and smacked my butt. I was so shocked that I did nothing as he sped away. No one else on the street seemed to noticed what had happened. I daydreamed all of the obscenities I could shout at this perv if I could go back in time, thinking that that this was a fluke and would never happen again.
Oh no, the very next day I was walking down 46th street around 6:30 pm and a guy on bike sneaked up behind me, whispered “nice ass” and grabbed me. He then sped away. I screamed “Asshole!” but really, does this affect a person like this? I got a better look at him and assume he’s probably the same guy.
I called the local precinct and the cop who I spoke to said that other women in Astoria have complained about this guy, near the locations I was at. He told me I could file a report if I wanted to. I went but a different cop said that it would be a waste of time. “These things happen,” he told me. Thanks buddy, that sure makes me feel safer.
I was loading my car with boxes, moving out of my apartment. While I was bent over trying to stack a box near the front, a young man in a red not-quite-sports car drove by and catcalled. I ignored it. Maybe fifteen minutes later, a guy in his forties was walking by and stopped to comment on my ass. I got out of the back of my car, looking him straight in the eye and said “Your comments aren’t helpful and you’re sexually harassing me. Leave me alone.” He called me a bitch and strutted away. This is not my first time being harassed in my college town of Bowling Green. I’ve gotten stared at and ‘spoken about’ among groups of men just walking down Main street. One time, I was riding home on my bike on the street (it’s illegal to ride on the sidewalk), and two young guys nearly ran me off the road in their car and shouted “Get off the road slut!” to me as they drove by. In Cleveland when I was in eighth grade, I was walking home from the bus stop and a group of construction workers- on my home street, just three or four doors down- started catcalling me and asking me where I was going. Now that I’ve got both experience and education on my side, I’m going to the neighbor in the red car (I know who he is, idiot) and leaving a nice note on his car.
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.