Who has your Back? Harassment on our Streets

Who has your Back? Harassment on our Streets

Last week  the British newspaper, The Guardian, reported on a young woman named Jinan Younis, who started a feminist society in her high school in response to a personal experience of street harassment. By rightfully acknowledging how this harassment was part of a wider culture of sexism, she was determined to do something about it:

After returning from this school trip I started to notice how much the girls at my school suffer because of the pressures associated with our gender. Many of the girls have eating disorders, some have had peers heavily pressure them into sexual acts, others suffer in emotionally abusive relationships where they are constantly told they are worthless.”

This quote is horrifying. Keep in mind, these are young women between 16 and 18 years old, who are suffering such intense societal pressure that they develop eating disorders and continue in emotionally abusive relationships. Not only did the boys and young men at her school react terribly to Younis’ society, as the article outlines, but the school authorities also failed to support the organization, further isolating these young women.

The word feminism, and the feminist movement itself, have never been less popular. A recent interview with actress Ellen Page looked at how celebrities like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga have actively denied the identity of “feminist,” despite how many of their actions define them as such. For example, Lady Gaga famously wore a dress resembling oozing flesh and meat to an award ceremony. When questioned why, she stated it was a statement on the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy:

“If we don’t stand up for what we believe in, and if we don’t fight for our rights, pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones. And, I am not a piece of meat.”

It is a fair assumption to make that Lady Gaga translates the same belief onto her right to equality as a woman. While many women feel comfortable with feminist ideals, they seem to be reluctant to identify as feminist. (Even Susan Sarandon, who has fought for women’s rights, has rejected the term as old fashioned.) Ellen Page said it perfectly: “But how could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?” When feminism has to be defended, and the word continues to represent a false image of bitter man-haters, then there has never been a greater need for the existence of feminism and young women like Younis.

Setting aside the school’s reluctance to take such a wonderful act of political agency seriously, the comments which inspired Younis to start this whole thing in the first place reveal a lot about how society views young women today. Younis recounts the incident:

A group of men in a car started wolf-whistling and shouting sexual remarks at my friends and me. I asked the men if they thought it was appropriate for them to be abusing a group of 17-year-old girls. The response was furious. The men started swearing at me, called me a bitch and threw a cup coffee over me.”

Hollaback Sign. Facebook

So, what are young feminists to do in a world so seemingly hostile to feminism? Well, one solution is to continue to fight. In response to Younis’ ordeal and other similar stories of sexual harassment, a movement called Hollaback! has recently taken shape. Hollaback! is a movement to end street harassment powered by a network of local activists around the world. The different sites across the world work together to understand what street harassment is, why it continues to happen, and how we can end it to ensure that everyone has equal access to public spaces.  Street harassment is an increasing and widespread problem. It happens everywhere.

Hollaback! has become enormously popular since its inception in 2010, which itself is an indicator of the ubiquity of street harassment as well as women’s outrage about the constant provocation.

There are now over 60 sites, in 25 countries, in 12 different languages.

Street harassment is usually sexual in nature. It targets both women and men. It targets those who are more likely to endure other forms of discrimination in their life – women, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ community, and black and ethnic minorities. It is defined as anything from catcalling, to sexually explicit gestures, to movements toward violence or breach of personal space. When talking about harassment, as a member of Hollaback! Belfast, I often get responses such as “But it’s a compliment!” or “I would love it if a stranger came up to me telling me I was hot!” The reality is, in a lot of cases, these comments are unwanted. They are patronizing, intimidating, and sometimes downright scary. How do we know this? Each Hollaback! site has a blogging platform where people submit their stories of street harassment, and many end with the person sharing how their experiences made them feel.  The real motive of street harassment is intimidation; to make its target scared or uncomfortable; and to make the harasser feel powerful.

The question of how to tackle street harassment is difficult. While it all leads into a wider culture where rape and sexual violence becomes more and more acceptable, increasing criminalization is not how Hollaback! wants to confront this problem. In many countries, criminal justice systems disproportionately affect low-income and ethnic minority communities, and so criminalization may cause increased discrimination.

Hollaback! Deputy Director, Debjani Roy, spoke specifically on how criminalization can affect families in ethnic minority communities in this Huffington Post article:

“A family may depend on a harasser due to certain institutional and cultural barriers, including immigration status (dependent visas, lack of documentation, etc.), linguistic barriers, or economic dependency. Say, for example, the harasser has a spouse who is on a dependent visa that does not allow her to work in the United States. Criminalization of the harasser will directly affect the family that relies on him for their livelihood, potentially resulting in dependent family members losing legal status in the United States, being separated in the case of removal proceedings or economic hardships due to lost income.”

If criminalization is not the answer, then what options do we have? Hollaback! promotes the safe practice of calling people out on their behaviors. As our website states, “Street harassment teaches us to be silent, but we aren’t listening. We don’t put up with harassment in the home, at work, or at school. And now we aren’t putting up with it in the street, either. By holla’ing back you are transforming an experience that is lonely and isolating into one that is sharable.” I am part of the team that launched a Belfast branch of this worldwide activist group and I’d like to share one of our most recent stories submitted to our site:

“I was cycling down Cranmore Park today at about 5pm towards the Lisburn Road, and as I went past the side entrance to the park, a man in a green t-shirt, in the driver’s seat of a silver car, which appeared to be parked, shouted “BITCH!” at me! I shouted back F**K OFF!! YOU F**KING W***ER, cycled further down but then decided I wasn’t going to let him get away with it, and thought I could try to get his license plate number, but by the time I turned around and got back to where his car was, he had driven away.”

This is a somewhat successful story, because the woman who was harassed felt comfortable and safe enough to shout back. The increasing awareness of Hollaback! and street harassment has hopefully allowed more people to call out harassment. Despite avoiding a confrontation with her harasser, this woman later told me that “it felt good to actually turn back and try to confront him, when on so many occasions I’ve just kept on walking.” These stories sometimes end with the harasser being in a more powerful position – i.e. in a group cheering them on or in a vehicle. I want to emphasize that Hollaback! only promotes calling out harassment when people feel they are in a safe position to do so. As so many of these stories can turn ugly, it is always best to get out of the situation as quickly as possible.

Part of this safety element involves promotion of bystander intervention, where we teach people to be more aware of what is going on around them. Everyone should be free to exist in a public space without fear of harassment. We all have a role in making sure others feel safe on the streets, and it is part of Hollaback!’s mission to explain what to do if we witness a troubling scenario. Intervention tactics range from backing up someone who has called out street harassment, to aiding them in getting out of the situation as fast as possible. If you see someone getting harassed on the street, even if you don’t know them, asking “Are you ok?” or “Hey, there you are – let’s go meet our friends” might help them to get away from a potentially bad spot. Each Hollaback! site has a lot more information on how to be an effective bystander.

The goal of Hollaback! is to eradicate street harassment by tackling its root cause – a racist, sexist, ablest and discriminatory patriarchal culture. In looking at how we can change minds and attitudes, we aim to tackle these oppressive attitudes through educational and awareness-raising campaigns, much like Jinan Younis’ organization. If nothing else, Younis has started a conversation about how people are treated in society and in her case, how some men think it is appropriate to target young women.

As the school’s reaction proves, change is slow to happen. Hollaback! Belfast has just begun its work. We launched in April of this year, and already stories are coming into our blog thick and fast. I can’t put a number on how many people tell me their story when I mention, in passing, the work that we do. This month sees the first ever bringing together of site leaders from all across the world in New York for a worldwide conference. It will be a public and live-streamed event at New York University, taking place on Thursday, July 25th. Hollaback! will provide a platform for leading feminist thinkers and activists, allowing us to develop tactics to end street harassment, further feminism, and explore the power of online organizing and movement building. It’s called Holla::Revolution and because it will be live streamed online, anyone across the world can (and should) participate. The Hollaback! movement works to both empower those who are harassed as well as strengthen our communities to bring about change in how we treat each other. Share your story! Join the revolution!

HOLLA Revolution Conference Poster

Featured image caption: Stop Sexual Harassment. Flickr

I am Founder & Director at Hollaback! Belfast. I have a Master’s Degree in History and Gender & Women’s Studies from the University of Wyoming. My academic work focuses on the role of women in post-conflict societies, with a particular focus on grass roots activism. I write for a number of feminist leaning blogs, am active in local feminist groups in Northern Ireland and an active speaker on Women & LGBTQ rights.