Yesterday I was walking the dog to the park. It was hot, over 80 degrees and sunny. Summer had finally hit London and I was welcoming it by wearing a dress without a jacket for the first time all year.
Along the ten minute walk, I experienced what women around the world experience every day: men leering, winking, making kissy faces and hollering at me from their cars.
Every time the weather turns nice, dresses come out of closets and women collectively cringe as they walk down the street to choruses of hoots and whistles. It’s annoying, disturbing and downright threatening, so when I got home I tweeted a little rant:
I then got into an interesting discussion with fellow travel blogger Raul, of the I Live to Travel blog. He was concerned that when it comes to travel these things are often just a cultural misunderstanding. He wanted to make clear that, even though harassment is wrong, we shouldn’t impose “our way” on other cultures.
This is the blog post where I spell out how that thinking is completely wrong.
First let me say it should be the right of every human being to walk down a street unharassed. Marginalizing women (or any group) by treating them like objects is not “culture” no matter how ingrained the behavior.
From a simple “Hey Gorgeous!” to public masturbation, I guarantee that whether you live in NYC or Kansas or Bali or Capetown the women in your community experience this crap all the time. From the time we hit puberty, being out alone in public has meant being vulnerable.
As Raul suggests here, sometimes there could be true cultural differences to consider.
For instance, I know that in Paris catcalling is a common flirting practice for young men. But the fact that it’s a cultural tradition didn’t stop women from protesting their country’s pervasive sexism in the streets last summer. In fact, in the wake of the Strauss-Kahn scandal women’s support groups in France registered a 600% increase in harassment complaints. Just because it’s a part of everyday life doesn’t mean women want it to stay that way.
“I didn’t go a single day without 10 to 15 dudes following me and whispering every single Asian-language word they knew while trying to grab me and pull me into their disgusting arms.” That’s a writer from Rookie Magazine describing her daily commute in France. She had to allow extra time to get to work because of men blocking her way.
And here a young woman from India talks about how she is forced to deal with harassment in her country: “I purposely buy clothes that are too big for me. I purposely go out wearing baggy clothes because I feel that when I wear something that shows skin, men stare at me more. Actually, they stare no matter what I wear, but even more when I am wearing something revealing. It should not be about what I wear.”
There are thousands more stories like hers on the Hollaback website. The organization is dedicated to stopping street harassment around the globe by standing up to it’s perpetrators and educating the public on how it is NOT OK.
Women from hundreds of different cultures are shouting for this to stop. It’s coming from them, from us, from every woman or man who is sick of not being able to walk down the street without being harassed.
It is most certainly not our American values forcing them to change.
As nineteen-year-old Afghan protestor Noor Jahan Akbar said last year: “Women’s safety is not a western idea, even in the time of Prophet Mohammad, women were safe, they could do trade, they could go out, and that’s what we deserve.”
This is not to say men can never flirt with women ever. It’s probably best to do that sort of thing in a cafe, bar or club where people are more receptive to social interaction, but even approaching a woman on the street to give her a compliment isn’t off limits. If it’s in a respectful and genuine manner it can be a lovely gesture that would probably make even the hardest city girl blush.
Raul had a cute story about his Latina Aunts loving “piropo” from men, but that experience is not universal. Inti Maria Tidball-Binz, the leader of Hollaback Buenos Aires, shared her thoughts on that practice: ”For many of us in Buenos Aires ‘piropos,’ or ‘catcalls’ are aggressive and intrusive.” It’s also possible that what once was an endearing way for a boy to get a girl’s attention has now turned into full-on harassment. Whatever the case, some people obviously don’t want to put up with it anymore.
When I told Raul I was writing this post he said he thought a good question to consider is where the line lies, since “we all agree the harassment side of the line is wrong.”
Women from Delhi to DC have their armor on when they walk down the street because they have to. You may not think a simple “Hey, gorgeous!” or wink would be offensive to them, but it could be. You don’t know what else she’s already endured on her way to the subway.
As it says on the Hollaback site, “Rather than deliberating the gray areas of street harassment, treat everyone you encounter with respect.” Is it really so hard to treat a woman on the street the same as you would a man? The answer to that is no, no it isn’t.
So it’s time to stop defending this ridiculous practice as “culture”. Lots of despicable things used to be a part of everyday culture in the States, but that doesn’t mean they were ever ok. And let’s not forget that some of the worst offenders can be in Western countries. The map on the Hollaback site has a lot of little stars in the US and UK!
So hollaback, stand up to the harassers, and be sympathetic to victims. Slowly we can change this behavior and make the streets of Planet Earth safe for people of both genders, one country at a time.
UPDATE (Friday 6:52 GMT): I want to be extremely clear that I am not saying that my fellow blogger Raul supports street harassment. He and I got into an interesting discussion where he brought up the common view that much of what we consider harassment is a matter of cultural differences. Obviously I (and many women) disagree and that’s what spawned this post. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Raul and, though we’ve never met in person, we chat on Twitter often and I consider him to be a travel friend.
UPDATE 2 (Friday 10:40 GMT): There’s an interesting discussion about this post happening on Reddit. Head over there to read more opinions & stories from women around the globe.