Catcalls Are Not Compliments: Challenging Street Harassment Worldwide

When I was in sixth grade, I had to walk a long way home from the bus stop. A few times, men followed me. I ran to a store so they wouldn’t know where I lived.

A high school junior in Virginia told me this when I visited her class last week to talk about street harassment. As soon as she shared her story, the room flooded with tales from other girls: the sexual remarks shouted at them from cars; the man who made “humping” motions against a girl on a public bus; the “creepy men” following them in stores; the men masturbating in front of them at public swimming pools; the man who told a girl on her bike to “get in the car.”

For many of the girls, this was the first time talking about these experiences. For all, it was the first time doing so in front of male classmates. The girls spoke about it in a matter-of-fact way, as part of their lives. The boys were stunned by what they heard; several commented on how much their awareness was raised.

Sharing stories to raise awareness is what the upcoming International Anti-Street Harassment Week is all about. Street harassment can only begin to be curbed after more people are aware, first, that it happens; second, that it happens a lot; third, that it happens to most women and girls and many men in the LGBQT community; and fourth, that when it happens, it has a negative impact on the harassed people’s lives.

From March 18 to 24, more than 100 groups in 18 countries will join thousands of individuals worldwide to collectively bring attention to this global problem. Tactics range from hashtags to radio campaigns to in-your-face street theater. Participants can choose whatever approach they think will be most effective in their community.

In Sana’a, Yemen, the Safe Streets Campaign will distribute copies of a book containing women’s street harassment stories to women’s groups and human rights groups, members of Parliament and journalists. They will also post it online as a PDF. This isn’t their first innovative approach to awareness raising: In 2011, they hosted an art exhibit (some of their work will be on display in a Washington, D.C. art show on March 18.)

Yemen Safe Streets Campaign founder Ghaidaa Alabsi says:

This problem is damaging [our] community cohesion, but it is getting very little attention. … We want to unify our voices with the other campaign[s] to tell the world in one voice Stop Sexual Harassment.

Since football (soccer) is so popular in Germany, the activist group Pro Change will visit buses and subways to hand out a “red card” against sexism and street harassment. They will also go to clubs and pubs, distributing the cards along with special beer mats to spotlight the harassment that happens there.

In Delhi, India, Kuber Sharma and Dhruv Arora, two male activists with the anti-violence campaign Must Bol, launched a website called GotStared.At. The website allows people from anywhere to upload photos of what they were wearing when they were harassed, in order to dispel the myth that clothes cause harassment. The GotStaredAt Facebook page has anti-victim-blaming posters for download. Sharma and Arora say they’re involved because,

Street sexual harassment is probably the most rampant form of violence in Delhi … We all know that it happens, but few people want to do anything about it. Gotstared.at is an answer to people who hold women responsible for street harassment. It’s time the ‘good’ men…do something about it!

In Montreal, Canada, Women in Cities International will conduct a Women’s Safety Audit Walk in partnership with CKUT-FM radio station and Concordia University’s Gender Advocacy Centre to evaluate the safety of the city’s streets. They have also released the initial findings of their three-year study on gender inclusive cities, which measures the safety of public space for women in four cities, based in large part on street harassment.

Dozens of events are occurring in the United States. See if one is happening in your area. There are many other ways anyone can become involved. Ideas on the website include:

  1. Sharing your stories on or offline,or reading/listening to other peoples’ stories
  2. Tweeting stories or messages with #EndSHWeek.
  3. Changing your Facebook profile picture for the week. Here is an image in English and you can visit the tools page to access logos in 13 languages.
  4. Gathering a few friends together to create fliers to post or hand out in the community or write sidewalk messages. Here are ideas for messages and a fact sheet with statistics to pull from. Here are fliers you can print and pass out: 1 | 2. Or visit the tools page and download an 8.5×11 size flier in 5 languages.

However you can, in whatever way feels comfortable to you, you can participate in the week by simply starting a dialogue around the issue. Raising awareness is the important first step toward stopping street harassment.

Top: Anti-street harassment activists in Philadelphia, 2011. Right: Anti-street harassment demonstrators in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Comments

  1. The real challenge in creating awareness is getting the support of folks who might not typically be invested in the issue. So I’m glad to see the efforts being made to reach a broader audience.

  2. I was sexually assaulted when I was walking to work 1 year ago. I was NOT wearing what people always assume women are wearing when this happens. I was wearing non-tight-fitting sweatpants, a loose tee shirt, and a big coat over that. I was minding my own business. This man did not care. He yelled at me, groped me, and tried to rape me. The only reason I believe I am alive today is because I had pepper spray. This was not where you would expect. It was in Alabama, in broad daylight. There is no such thing as “asking for it” or just staying away from the “bad neighborhoods.” This can and does happen anywhere, to any woman or girl. I was one of the lucky ones.

  3. @ Allison – even if you were wearing something tight or revealing or in a “bad neighborhood,” no one deserves to be sexually assaulted at any time, in a place, for any reason. The criminal is the criminal is the criminal, PERIOD. And sexual crime happens in the nicest, most affluent zip codes as well as in the rural or urban or industrial places of anywhere. The only common denominator is a rapist – someone who is a sexual criminal. It doesn’t matter what you wear, where you were, who you were with. Those are victim blaming mechanisms, not the truth.

    I’m glad you escaped a more violent attack.

  4. I have been flashed 3 times in my life. One time, I was walking my dog in the park, wearing normal clothes, I don’t remember what, but I’m not a person who wears revealing clothing. I saw the guy with his bike under a pavilion, and I didn’t think anything of it, just kept walking, but then he rode out of the pavilion directly towards me and exposed himself to me. He didn’t appear to be wearing any pants. I immediately ran across the street to a house and asked someone if I could call the police. I did call the police, and they later apprehended someone and drove me over to identify him. It wasn’t the same man, so, that sucked, but anyway, I was telling the story in a group of friends and an acquaintance of mine got angry with me for calling the police. He claimed that the guy was “just having fun” and now I may have ruined his life. I told him that I was just minding my own business, walking my dog, and I DID NOT ask to see this man’s penis. If he will go as far as to expose himself to a complete stranger, what else is he capable of? On a side note, I must say I was impressed with the flashers ability to ride a bike with no pants while clutching his erect penis. Very talented.

  5. The campaign is such a great idea…something that certainly applies worldwide. I’m a Canadian currently living in Saudi Arabia. I was shocked to learn that cat-calls and street violence happen just as much in Saudi, as in Canada.

    When I was in high school in suburban Ontario, Canada, I was stalked by a 50 year old man on my 5 minute walk home from school. This went on for 3 months until he found out where I lived, was parked in front of my house masturbating. Terrified, I ran inside, and called the police. A neighbour grabbed the man and held him until police arrived. He was arrested. My mom was “sure” it was about how “short” I was wearing my kilt. Of course this would NEVER happen to a girl or woman “appropriately” dressed, she’d said.

    In Saudi Arabia, women are clad from head to toe in black, covered completely from their hair to their ankles. Even here, men make cat-calls to women–completely covered women–who are walking, or in cars, minding their own business. THIS NEEDS TO STOP!!!! And so do misconceptions of those who suggest that how a woman is dressed is to blame for provocation of any kind.

  6. I wish I would have a roomful of people to support me whenever the topic of street harassment came up… Usually, other women say that it’s never happened to them, so I must have done something to provoke it. Then the slut shaming begins. And, not that it should matter, but I don’t really wear anything revealing at all.

    In fact, I’m pretty sure I get harassed in my winter coat more often than anything else. It has nothing to do with clothing, only the “crime” of looking female in public. Heck, I have a male friend who’s slightly built with long hair, and he’s had men catcall HIM. Of course, he loves it, because he then has a chance to turn around and show them his mustache and beard. They usually respond by kindly displaying to him their homophobia.

    • There’s no excuse for those b*****ds of men who sexually harass. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been sexually harassed repeatedly-I’m in high school and I look 13 years old and people go around sexually harassing my friends and I. You’re right, the only ‘crime’ is to look female in public. If males who look male (no offense to your friend) get regularly sexually harassed, I’m sure that they will understand out point of view and stop harassing. Seriously, some people are just pedophilic. I remember when I was 5 years old and out shopping with my dad that this creepy, 50 something guy grabbed my head and kissed the top of it, saying I looked really pretty. I didn’t even realize that it was sexual harassment until I was 13 yrs old. Luckily for me, back then, my dad interfered and yelled at the creepy dude, who slunk away. People like that really don’t deserve to even live, if all they live for is to ruin someone’s day and life. If only people realize how degrading the impact of sexual harassment and assault was, they’d stop it.

  7. I get harassed daily. While I don’t live in a major city, I live in a rather conservative one. But wait, why would anyone get SEXUALLY HARASSED in a conservative city? Because I have short hair. *gasp* The horror! I have tattoos and piercings and I love to show off my art. People then assume one of the most intimate things about me from this, my sexuality. People, almost always heterosexual men, shout profanities at me. Yesterday I was walking with a woman who is just a friend, nothing more, and a man shouted from his car, “Get a f*****g man!” I get other comments that often follow the line that their penis can make me go straight because it is THAT amazing, them asking to make out with another woman for them, and other explicit offers. I live with this EVERYDAY. There is rarely a place where I am free from it. It wears me down after a while, and is often hard to deal with. I hope for one day where no one has to deal with this. No one should ever have to. The worst part is that when I talk to people about it, they just tell me it’s what I should expect from my appearance. I find myself to be beautiful, and my appearance, no matter how “counter-culture,” does not give ANYONE the right to harass me.

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