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Talking About Street Sexual Harassment

Posted: February 13, 2012

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Street sexual harassment is not teasing; and it can be effectively tackled only if we change our attitudes towards it.

By Hamsini Ravi

Men and women look at public spaces differently. After three months of helping run the Chennai Hollaback! website, I have learnt this. Prajnya, a Chennai-based non profit launched Hollaback! in Chennai after conducting a safety audit as part of the 16 Day Campaign Against Gender Violence in 2009. “One of the reasons, we launched Hollaback! in Chennai, was that while it is perceived as a safe city for women, many incidents are brushed under the carpet, simply because women and girls are not encouraged to talk about it. Or simply, because we don’t think there is anything wrong in being whistled at”, says Anupama Srinivasan, Director, Gender Research and Information Taskforce, Prajnya.

Growing up with street sexual harassment

On a personal level, one of my first encounters of sexual harassment on the street, was way back when I was 12. We had gathered at a classmate’s house for her birthday party, and were playing badminton just outside her house, when another one of our classmates said that she saw a man, who was relieving himself on the road, pointing his private parts in her direction. A collective shock ran through the birthday party. As young girls who used only certain public spaces, that too at designated times and mostly under adult supervision, we were flummoxed that this could be allowed to happen.

The world will be what it is. You need to come back home early or dress ‘appropriately’ to deal with it’

To make matters worse, the host’s mother at the birthday party used the occasion to give us a lecture. Something along the lines of how since we were big girls now, we should be careful about what the world threw at us, how men would look for opportunities to rub against us or catcall. ‘The world will be what it is. You need to come back home early or dress ‘appropriately’ to deal with it’, was the brief. To a 12-year-old’s mind, I didn’t see why I had to be on my toes and reform myself, when I wasn’t at fault here!

Over the years, I have had sporadic encounters with street sexual harassment, but only recently have I carefully been observing people’s reactions to it. The advertisement of a popular Chennai-based retailer once said, ‘Get used to whistles and stares!’, and I was shocked at how it not only accepted a serious form of harassment, but also glorified it. As if, we need validations that we look good from random men whistling and staring.

Dispelling myths about street sexual harassment

One of the challenges that we’ve had to do in our Hollaback! workshops has been getting the girls to squash some common stereotypes about sexual harassment in public spaces, and call violence for what it is:

a) Even staring, whistling and cat calling are abuse – they can lead to worse abuse if ignored.

b) A more exclusive public space, such as a mall or a pub, is not harassment-free by itself.

c) Often, what one wears is not a trigger for street sexual harassment. A project by Blank Noise, proved otherwise. When they called for women to send in clothes they were wearing when harassed, they received all kinds of clothes, from bhurkas to sarees and kurtas.

d) You can make a difference by protesting against it real time – even a firm NO, to a man who is brushing against you in the bus, can help.

e) Don’t call it Eve Teasing. Teasing is a rather gentle word for these circumstances, recognise that this is a violation and call it STREET SEXUAL HARASSMENT.

Create noise; acknowledge and talk about street sexual harassment

One of our aims, when we launched, was to ‘break the silence’ around the issue of street sexual harassment. While, we have succeeded in getting people to talk about it, at some level, sustaining interest in the issue, getting people to invest in anti-gender violence campaign and in safe public spaces, and looking at it as a serious social issue worthy of attention, has been a challenge.

The first step to recognising that street sexual harassment is a legitimate human rights issue, is by adopting a zero-tolerance approach…

A sure eyeball grabber would be to explicitly highlight the economic costs of street sexual harassment. On a micro-economic level, this would include how women may choose to hire auto rickshaws to work, as opposed to buses, or how women may choose to stay in a slightly more downtown residential area than the suburbs, or refuse jobs that require them to travel in the night. On a macro-economic level, this would span the cost that companies invest on fleets of vehicles to pick and drop their employees, police patrols in designated public spaces and the like.

The world is divided into Slutwalk activists, and the rest of the normal folks, is the general perception among people, when I tell them that I’m involved with the local chapter of an international collective that works on the issue of street sexual harassment. The first step to recognising that street sexual harassment is a legitimate human rights issue, is by adopting a zero-tolerance approach, and telling yourself that you deserve no less than being able to feel absolutely safe.

About The Author: Hamsini Ravi is a trained journalist working on media projects with non-profits. She is also Project Coordinator, Hollaback! Chennai.

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