When I was a little girl, and what seemed like eight months of winter finally abated, I longed to join the ranks of my elementary-school cohorts in wearing shorts and tank tops in the summer. Yet, my mother enforced strict standards of modesty when it came to my warm-season attire, often opting to turn an old pair of my jeans into shorts, in an effort to control the shortness of the hem. It was all to protect me, she must have insisted. When my mother was a little girl, she regularly walked the five miles to her primary school from her home in Arusha, Tanzania. On more than one occasion, she described to me with sadness and pointed indignation, the honks and threatening jeers she got from passing cars, how she was followed by local men, and the occasions when harassers would simply reach out and grab her breasts.
Half a century later, in the US, I seldom see a day where I am not regularly bombarded with street harassment. Honks, obscene gestures, public masturbation, leering, violent displays of hostility, deliberate physical contact under the guise of an accidental encounter, and a constant barrage of sexual innuendo, and sexually explicit language – are all a part of my daily existence. I shudder those mornings when I catch myself evaluating whether the length of my skirt, or the cut of my blouse may leave me ‘exceptionally vulnerable’ to street harassment. I shouldn’t have to change, I remind myself. I shouldn’t have to alter my behavior.
What I can say without question is that despite the time and distance between my mother’s victimization and my own, is that these were not, and are not isolated incidents. Sexual harassment is one of the most prevalent forms of violence against women. Girls as young as six-years-old have been targeted, and most women experience this hostility at some point in their lives, on a regular basis. To understand the origins and implications of this behavior, I look to a quote by anarchist and activist, Chris Crass, who once reflected on the process of socialization that functioned to shape his behavior as a male in the public sphere:
“Patriarchy and heterosexism also taught me, in subtle and blatant ways, that I was entitled to women’s bodies, that I was entitled to take up space and put my ideas and thoughts out there whenever I wanted to, without consideration for others. This is a very different process of socialization than most other people in this society.”
Interviews conducted by sociologist Nadia Ilahi of the American University in Cairo, with men in Egypt who had self-identified as having engaged in street harassment, greatly reflected Crass’s insights. Respondents had marked difficulty regarding their behavior as harassment, insisting that the cat-calls and gestures were merely their way of either engaging in a sexual discussion with women, or an effort to “have fun and flirt.” Even after hearing a list of reasons why street harassment makes women uncomfortable, one man, Maged, a tailor from Cairo responded with, “They say no, but they mean yes. These women walk suggestively, wearing makeup and we men are supposed to just ignore it [?]”
Another respondent, Wael, insisted, “You can tell the type of girls that are looking for it. You can feel it off of them. They walk swaying their hips and looking at men. A woman who doesn’t want to be harassed would not do that.”
Both responses showcase how harassers routinely relegate blame for their own behavior on the myriad of subtle ways in which women are perceived to be performing their gender in the public sphere. These men insist that by wearing makeup or “swaying their hips,” women are fulfilling the ascribed gender-role of the “seductress,” and acting as provocateurs of such reactive male-behavior. Men are merely doing their part, by providing women with the harmless responses that they are so clearly asking for. Still, the multitude of women in Cairo (and elsewhere in the world) who modify their own behavior in an effort to mitigate street harassment (in ways such as adhering to stricter standards of Islamic dress, evading eye contact with men, and only walking with male relatives in public), are still subject to sexual harassment. This clearly shows that despite claims made by men, harassment is not a harmless, direct reaction by men to women, but an institutionalized system of violence that functions to police women’s participation, freedom of movement, and behavior in public spaces. It is not how women behave in the public sphere that makes them vulnerable to street harassment; it is that they have chosen to enter the public sphere at all.
Because patriarchy enforces the notion that men are “entitled to women’s bodies,” those unfortunate women who make the necessary choice to leave their homes are fair game for sexual violence. The male perspective presented above disregards the ramifications of this behavior for women, physically and psychologically. The actual female experience, as outlined by Ilahi for the two respondents, is irrelevant, as their own thoughts and feelings on the practice are of greater concern to them than the consequences for their victims.
Why such blatant disregard for the suffering of their fellow-human-beings? Perhaps, because men don’t see women as human beings. Sociologists have made the argument that the routine objectification of women leads them to be “seen as less sensitive to pain,” and as a result, men “care less about their suffering.” Simply put, when men can only relate to women as objects, they become dehumanized, and “it is easier to commit violence against them.”
But women are people, not objects, and thus, sexual harassment is not innocuous. According to Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, street harassment “limits [women’s] freedom to participate in education, work, recreation, and in political and economic life — or to simply enjoy their neighbourhoods.” Additionally, it forces women to live in constant fear for their safety, a fear not unfounded considering the global statistics on sexual assault, and causes many to routinely evaluate the cost-benefit of merely leaving the house on any given day.
Efforts by policy makers and law enforcement authorities to address this issue have been dreadfully inadequate, and in many cases, blatantly harmful, on an international level. Authorities in the US and legislatures in India have respectively, attempted to shame women into altering their attire, and imposed a nightly curfew, limiting the hours where they may work outside of the home. Both policies allow law makers and enforces to both abdicate responsibility for ensuring the safety of women, and further police their behavior in and access to public spaces. In many parts of the world, local governments routinely deny the systemic nature of street harassment, and the absence of a mechanism to aid women in reporting this behavior, and the cultural tendency to ignore or minimize women’s complaints, makes statistics on the prevalence of street harassment hard to come by.
Still, efforts by the United Nations, such as their annual Women’s Safe Cities Conference, which took place in Cairo last year, are cause for some optimism. The UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women put forth solutions for addressing street harassment, which range from increasing street-lights in ‘high-risk’ areas, to establishing female counselor-led committees for developing community policy and effective responses to street harassment, and training local police to understand the seriousness of this behavior and providing them with specific, gender-based violence education. They also suggest empowering women and young people with the ability to participate in the decisions that most affect their lives, such as those on budgets and local infrastructure.
As a woman who has suffered the indignity of street harassment with a great degree of consistency for years, believe me when I say that it is infuriating. While women attempt to break through the glass ceiling, highlight the deeply rooted cultural misogyny that functions to define our culture, and simply get to work in the morning, they are constantly reminded by the strangers they seek to avoid encountering on the street, that they are living in a society run by men who are incapable of seeing them as human beings. Globally, street harassment is a social malady that persistently robs women of the chance at living lives where they can enjoy the basic freedoms to which all human beings are entitled, and which are the cornerstone of any civilized society. As we celebrate International Anti-Street Harassment week, I find myself reflecting on actions I can further take in my daily life to resist street harassment. The question remains, what will you do?