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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.
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 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.
BY EMILY MAY
The beautiful thing about running these campaigns is the tremendous number of supporters that come forward with their kind words and generous donations. Here are some of our favorites:
“After hearing about Hollaback’s new campaign initiative, I kept meaning to donate, but would forget. However, after being harassed on the street at least once a day this past week week in NYC (including one instance where I had to run into a bar and hide), it was impossible for me to forget anymore. Thank you for all of the work that Hollaback does. I hope to be able to contribute more than just $$$ one day.” – Laurin Paige
“As a father of a high-school age boy, I think it is critical to educate boys on what is and what is not acceptable in their interraction with women. And what they can do when they see unacceptable behavior in a public or private place. Go Hollaback!” – biopestman
“The first time I experienced street harassment, I told my friends about how angry and afraid the experience made me feel. They were completely dismissive of my feelings and told me I would just have to get used to it. Years later I discovered Hollaback! and felt relieved to know that I’m not “overreacting” for expecting to be treated like a human being when I walk down the street. Thank you for letting me know that I am not alone, and that together we can all end street harassment for good.” -pixieny
These testimonies from our kind donors keep us motivated and inspired. But not all the stories we receive about why this campaign is so important are happy ones. And it was the unhappy stories – the stories that we received over the years from people who after experiencing harassment were ignored, treated like they were “crazy,” or blamed – that inspired us to start this campaign to begin with. These stories are too common. About 15-20% of the stories we receive on the site mention bystanders who failed to stand up for what they knew was right. For today’s campaign update, we wanted to highlight one story in particular that stood out to us.
Thank you — to the 143 of you who have donated so far. Because of you, we’ve raised $10,485. And it’s because of you out there who haven’t had a chance to donate that we’re going to make our goal. So please, if you haven’t yet, take a minute to donate. Your donation will be matched by our board — so even the smallest donation can mean big change.
BY NANCY A. DAVIS
It was just another typical Tuesday. I was in the Port Authority Bus Terminal waiting for the A train. All I wanted to do was get downtown. I waited by a pillar, minding my own business. I felt someone staring at me, but brushed it off as paranoia. I looked around and saw him – he was checking me out all right. He gave me one of those head-to-toe looks, that just makes me cringe. I slid back behind the pillar, hoping the A train would arrive soon.
I hopped on the train, and found a spot to plant my feet. I took a deep breath and thought He’s gone. I then felt a pair of eyes upon me again. It was him, and he was still staring and making obscene gestures. I moved to another part of the car to stand when some other passengers exited the train. He moved with me. I turned around, not looking him in the face. I could hear his heavy breathing behind me. My skin was crawling from being stared at like that.
I then moved to another car and he followed me there too. Now I was really freaked. I am a small woman. No way would I be able to fight this person off if he acted up. The sad part is, no one even noticed or said anything about him staring straight at me or about him following me to the next car. No one.
We should not have to be subjected to this. This is why I donated. Some people think it is acceptable to speak to anyone in a suggestive manner, or that staring for a long time is acceptable. It is not okay. We need help. We need you. Please donate to Hollaback! and let women not just here in the United States, but Worldwide know – that you have their back.
I have so many other stories of harassment. For instance, when I was seventeen (years ago), a friend and I were followed out to my car by a man working at Home Depot (who had approached us in the store, and checked us out back by the tires away from everyone else….. already creepy. He was much older and way bigger). He asked how old we were, we answered 17, and he then asked when our birthdays were. When we told him we had just turned 17, he paused and said, “Well…. I mean, if you girls ever want to hang out, just holler at me.”
Things like that happen a lot. And lesser incidents like being whistled or kissed at from a moving car (whether or not I’m walking with a group or a boyfriend, regardless of dress) happen even more often (just last night, actually).
But what made me want to post was a conversation I had with my current boyfriend tonight. We were at a pizza place and I went to go to the bathroom. While passing the men’s room, I heard two guys talking. “Aw man, the line is longer than the women’s room!” “Well, men are smarter than women, so…” I missed the rest, and I may be overreacting but the tone of his voice… it sounded like he meant it. And whether he did or not, it reminded me that there are men who truly believe that they are more intelligent than all women simply by the virtue of their penis. It bothered me, and when I told my boyfriend about it, he sort of blew me off and dismissed it. “I’m sure he was just joking,” etc.
Later, he asked what was wrong and I explained that it seemed that every time I bring up an instance of sexism or objectification, he doesn’t take me seriously and seems to think I’m making it up (this has happened before). I assured him that I wasn’t. And actually, he understood and apologized. We continued talking and I said, “I have had hatred thrown my way before, but most of what I have to deal with is the kind of sexism that is patronizing, objectifying, dismissive, perv bullshit. But the thing about that is… It’s a weird thing – trying to be tough and strong while knowing that there are men twice my size who, if they wanted to, could throw me across a room or punch me out and take advantage of me. And I can fight, and I would, but I can’t deny the difference in physical strength. And when I am objectified, it disturbs me. If they don’t see me as human, what’s to stop them from doing those things?”
(sidetrack: I just caught myself thinking, “If I were stronger, I guess I wouldn’t have to worry as much.” WTF!? I am 5’0″ and around 110 lbs. I’m in pretty good shape, and I’m fairly muscular. Still, there is only so much I can do for my size. But what bothers me about my thought is the whole “might makes right” mentality that I was JUST guilty of, even though I’m so opposed to it. “Oh, if I were stronger, I’d be safe.” As if we’re animals. Just because a man is stronger than me, that does not give him the right to use that against me. It shouldn’t be about me fending a man off, it shouldn’t even be an issue in the first place. Why is he bothering me at all? You can’t logically promote the idea that men are more intelligent/rational/capable than women (you know us gals and our periods) and then at the same time suggest that they (men) are so overcome by their irrational, savage, animal instincts at the sight of a woman’s [insert body part, depending where you are] that they can’t help but commit a rape. Not only is it misogynist, it lacks consistency and just doesn’t even make any fucking sense. Anyway…)
I think tonight helped him get a better idea of why I take things like this seriously. He’s a good guy and I know he wants to treat others with the respect they deserve. He just needed to hear me articulate what bothered me. I know a lot of men like this – men who just need to hear the women in their lives explain why sexism/objectification is so disturbing to us. Thank you, Hollaback, for providing a venue.
We are so strong. Let’s use our strength to build a world where we don’t need physical strength to feel safe. Donate to our “I’ve Got Your Back” campaign today.
Developed by our friends at Blank Noise Project, in India.
This video was created by the Safe Horizon Safe Harbor Student Leaders, who, after hearing that the city was considering a public service announcement campaign about street harassment, decided they would show the city what could be most effective.
In this tight budget year, funding from the city wasn’t available for a PSA campaign, but the council was able to support an initiative that will allow the city to collect more data on street harassment and provide a real-time response to it (more details to be released in the coming months).
A special thank you goes to Councilmember Christine Quinn, Councilmember Julissa Ferraras, and Councilmember Brad Lander for their bold vision and support of Hollaback! and the movement to end street harassment! We are so proud that NYC as boldly taken on this important issue that effects our community and our city.
We’d also like to thank the Safe Horizon Safe Harbor Student Leaders for bravely speaking out about their right to feel safe on the streets (and a special thanks to Rachel Henes and Rebecca Forlenza for helping them to share their voices).