by Holly Kearl
What does a woman in Bangalore, India, standing on a busy street corner, waiting for a bus have in common with a teenage girl in Queens, New York, dressed in her school uniform, waiting for the subway? Or with a woman in her 20s in Drammen, Norway, wearing a winter coat, walking home alone from a friend’s house after dark?
For three years, women like them, hailing from 30 countries, have shared their street harassment stories on my blog, Stop Street Harassment. They detail the sexually explicit comments, sexist remarks, following, groping, vulgar gestures, whistling, and public masturbation men impose on them on the streets, on public transportations, and in stores - simply because they are female and in public.
The few studies that exist tracking rates of gender-based street harassment show its prevalence is quite high. Countrywide studies in Canada and Egypt reveal this vastly under-recognized issue to be the experience of more than 80 percent of women. Recent studies conducted in Delhi, India, and Sa’ana, Yemen, show it to be the experience of more than 90 percent of women. And in the only two studies conducted in the United States, 100 percent of women in both Indianapolis, Indiana, and in the California Bay Area said they had faced street harassment.
I feel outraged about this issue because - unlike other forms of harassment - street harassment is portrayed as complimentary, a minor annoyance, or the woman’s fault. Street harassment is a serious issue. It impedes women’s equality by preventing them from having the same access to public places as men and from feeling as welcome or comfortable as men. Street harassment makes many women feel like they must be on guard in public as they constantly assess their surroundings, scowl, avoid eye contact, and have cell phones ready in case they need to call for help.
In my research I found that street harassment restricts women’s access to public spaces. On at least a monthly basis, 45 percent of women avoid being in public alone at night and 40 percent avoid being in public alone period. One in five women moved neighborhoods to avoid harassment and one in ten changed jobs because of harassers along their commute or outside their worksite.
Sometimes I feel helpless by the vastness of the issue. Last year, I had the idea to organize an international day of action to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of street harassment and to help break the silence so many of us feel when we experience it. Like many ideas, I did not do anything with it for months. Then, on February 20, I woke up thinking about this day of action and decided to declare March 20, the spring equinox, as Anti-Street Harassment Day.
Since harassment tends to increase during the spring, I hoped to find 500 people who would agree to do something on March 20: share their street harassment stories, talk to a family member about the issue, and maybe even organize an event or rally. It became clear early on that the day of action and story-sharing was touching a nerve as people all over the world jumped at the opportunity to come together to do something about street harassment. I was amazed by the number of organized events and planned action, and by the more than 1700 people who RSVPed on Facebook saying they would do something.
On March 20, I could barely tear myself away from the computer to engage in my own Anti-Street Harassment Day activism. I was so enthralled by the number of people blogging, tweeting, and sharing pictures from their events. From an informal discussion of community members discussing street harassment in Prague, to the publishing of an important article in Mexico City about educating young men to prevent street harassment, to neighborhood canvassing about street harassment in Cairo, women and men took up the call to action and eagerly worked to make a difference in their communities.
In South Africa, Thabs Kolwa was one of the first people to raise awareness about street harassment. Her interest came out of her personal experiences and the realization that “many women and girls have yet to develop a vocabulary to describe and understand the discomfort they feel at being objectified by strangers. There is plenty of silence surrounding the issue.”
Silence on this issue is typical around the world because of the normalization of street harassment and the harmful propensity to blame women for its occurrence based on how they dress or the time of day or night they are in public. On March 20, Thabs Kolwa passed out anti-street harassment pamphlets and talked with people all over campus. She felt that “the initiative was highly informative” and she was able to help break the silence on campus that surrounds the issue of street harassment.
In Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, despite the blustery cold, a young woman named Rebecca, also one of the first people to contact me, organized a small group of people to walk through the areas of the city where street harassment has been most prevalent for people they know. As they walked, they handed out flyers and carried signs saying, “Whistles are for dogs not for women,” “Hello, my name is not ‘Hey Baby,’” and “Catcalls are not compliments.” They concluded their march by holding their signs outside City Hall.
The WomenSpeak Project, a new initiative in Trinidad and Tobago, was an organization that eagerly participated. Founder Simone Leid decided to participate because she “thought it was a great opportunity to help spread the word in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean that street harassment is a real problem. Being part of an international effort added credibility to the cause and showed that it was not just a cultural idiosyncrasy as many believe, but a global gender discrimination issue.”Leid focused her activism online and encouraged people to submit “Anti-Street Harassment Manifestos” to WomenSpeak and tweet them and post them on Facebook. She received numerous submissions with statements like, “A Woman does not walk down the street for your entertainment,” and “Pssssst is not a name on my birth certificate.”
The largest group action took place in Delhi, India, where a 2009 survey of 630 women revealed that 95 percent felt their mobility was restricted because of their fear of male harassment in public places. At Delhi University more than 600 students, faculty, and local organizations marched together around the campus, demanding a safer campus for all.
Anupriya Ghosh, who works for Safe Delhi and was an organizer of the event, said “The turnout was marvelous. The highlight of all was the partnership we have been able to establish with the Delhi police force. Our repeated follow-up meetings had such a great impact that the officer in charge of the police station in university herself was present in the walk. That was really brilliant that the police themselves are taking this seriously.”
The photos from the rally are inspiring. I love seeing hundreds women and men of all ages march together in solidarity and in pursuit of a common goal.
The incredible success of Anti-Street Harassment Day and the steady stream of people tweeting and contacting me afterward, saying “I wish I had known, I would have done something,” means that there will be many more Anti-Street Harassment Days in the years to come. Each year, I know it will be bigger, with more participants and events, as we collectively refuse to be silent about this pervasive problem and decide to take action, share our stories, and demand its end.
About the author:
Holly Kearl works for the American Association of University Women in Washington, DC. She is the founder of the website www.stopstreetharassment.com, founder of International Anti-Street Harassment Day, and author of the book Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women (Praeger Publisher, 2010). She has written articles about street harassment for Huffington Post, Guardian, AOL, Forbes.com, and Ms. magazine’s blog.