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NATIONAL | FALL 2013

If These Walls Could Talk: Fighting harassment with street art

By ANITA LITTLE

“I hope when women see them, they’ll feel less alone in the streets.”

This is what Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh wants her public art series, “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” to do for women in eastern U.S. cities—and then across the country and globe—who daily combat street harassment. Starting in her Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Fazlalizadeh has peppered walls with black-and-white drawings of brazenfaced women accompanied by bold slogans such as, “Women are not outside for your entertainment.”

When a man tells a woman to smile, says the artist, he’s expecting her to entertain him. “It’s the same as saying, ‘Dance for me; jump for me.’ Smile is never really a question; it’s a command. Street harassment isn’t always the construction worker shouting from across the street…street harassment is about a man forcing himself into a woman’s space.”

Usually an oil painter, Fazlalizadeh first thought to express her frustration at street sexism with paintings, but decided it would be more impactful to place the artwork in the environment where harassment occurs. So she began interviewing friends and colleagues about their experiences in public spaces, and then drawing portraits of them.

“I decided on posters because they’re quick, they’re outside, and they’re not too polished,” she says. “It places the images of women outside in the public space boldly and strongly. It’s about taking agency by using our voices and our images.”

Fazlalizadeh takes the anti-street harassment movement a step further by throwing race into the conversation. She argues that race informs how certain women are disrespected in public spaces, and she wants to reset the dialogue to one that factors in the intersection of race with gender.

“Street harassment happens because of male entitlement, so it’s only natural that all the other types of power and privilege would come into that equation,” she says. “With women of color, our bodies are already hypersexualized, and that is reflected in how men will approach you. Some of the conversations about street harassment seem to glaze over race, but I want to explore it more.”

Fazlalizadeh, who herself is African American and Iranian, focuses on women of color in her posters. “I wanted to portray women of color first and foremost,” she says. “I wanted to inject the voices of women of color standing up for themselves.”

The work seems to have hit a nerve. After garnering attention with her posters in New York and Philadelphia, Fazlalizadeh launched a Kickstarter campaign that would enable her to not only ship posters to those who wish to paste them up in their own communities but to travel herself to about 10 more cities domestically and internationally, interview women there and create more pieces. The Kickstarter successfully raised more than double its goal, nearly $35,000.

“It was amazing how quickly it happened,” she says. “I haven’t really celebrated yet; it’s more about getting organized to make the work as great as I possibly can.”

Finally, something to smile about.

Photos courtesy of Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.

Reprinted from the Fall 2013 issue of Ms. To have this issue delivered straight to your door, Apple, or Android device, join the Ms. Community.

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