By Jane Derishu
As this is my first post for a blog named Gender and the City, I thought it would be appropriate to specifically discuss the relationship between gender and cities. I have been quite lucky in this respect: the timing of this article is perfect after Hollaback — an international movement that tries to end street harassment — published a brilliant video addressing this exact issue.
For those of you who haven’t watched it yet, the video shows a woman (Shoshana B Roberts – because credits are important) walking for 10 hours across New York City, and the reactions she gets from men on the street. To clarify, I am not arguing that all men are violent and harass women, but I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t experienced street harassment at least once in her lifetime. For this reason, I believe it is important that we talk about this.
Comments, whistling, various weird sounds… sometimes all you need is one guy looking at you weirdly to feel unsafe whilst walking on the street. I might be old-fashioned, but I still think that people should feel safe in public spaces.
The tricky thing about this is that you have two ways of reacting, and both are a trap. If you do not react initially in the way the harasser wants you to (whatever that may be), it is likely that they will continue to harass you. On the other hand, they can also interpret a lack of reaction as snobbish or even bitchy, or other not-as-polite profanities. As we all know, this is not the best way to start the day.
The second option is even trickier since it aims to make you feel like you are the one doing something wrong. Yes, I’m talking about answering back. From my own personal experience I can confirm that by replying to their comments (whether politely or not) often the perpetrator immediately pretends to be a victim who will accuse you of being hysterical, overreacting to what they think are normal social situations, or even resorts to calling you a sociopath. I frequently received this kind of reaction, one that pointed a finger at me for not being nice to them. They then claimed they merely wanted to pay me a compliment. I was also, ridiculously, blamed for disrupting the social order, with claims that, due to my behaviour, men now feel they cannot even talk to women anymore without being considered perverse. It is just great to have found out that I am actually the reason why men no longer know how to talk to women.
I am not even going to explain what is wrong with the comment above, but occasionally I found myself wondering if this harassment tactic ever worked for these men. What do they get out of it? I could never imagine myself stopping when a man whistles at me in the street and asking him out. I would love to know if it has ever worked for anyone.
But why am I discussing this? Firstly, because I think it is a serious problem. I have been to so many major cities all around the world and in every one, without exception, I have found myself in a similar situation as the one described above. I did not feel safe, not at all. Secondly, because I believe we should not stop talking about it. Regardless of what I think municipalities, policy makers and politicians should do about it, I believe that we – women and men who care and find it important – should keep talking about it so that it keeps receiving attention until words have been translated into actions. So please, flood the media with your personal stories, because public spaces will not be public until it is safe for both men and women to walk through them undisturbed.
On the same subject, a few days ago I was given the card below by a guy who was standing in front of me in a coffee shop queue: I felt flattered, I felt safe and we had a nice talk. I would never even consider stopping and talking to the same guy if he had shouted something to me on the street. This is something that those who claim it is impossible to talk to women these days without making them feel scared or uncomfortable, should think about carefully.