By Scherezade Siobhan
Roughly around mid 2016 I created a digital storytelling space called “The Mira Project” – a global, cross-cultural conversation about street harassment, gendered violence and its impact on mental health. The clear goal for us was a rather simple one – Take Space. Without apologies. As part of this initiative, we started speaking to and widely interviewing women globally through a simple, 5-statements questionnaire. This response-solicitation used a form of gauging cognitive framing through open-ended statements such as “When walking alone at night, I think of..” I invited the participants to complete the sentence in whichever way they felt comfortable with a single criterion – they shouldn’t spend more than a few minutes thinking about it. Our attempt was to get as authentic and instant a response without logical biases restructuring the more natural and less inhibited answer. After asking the same set of questions to a host of women across the world & from all walks of life including writers, social workers, artists, teachers, librarians, doctors, cab drivers, we noticed saw a troubling thread – almost all of them had a similar set of responses to the statement above and it usually indicated something about keeping their head down, ensuring their keys were with them, walking fast, putting on their headphones so they wouldn’t have to be approached etc. In short – all of them immediately linked their safety or lack of it to a statement that in itself was presented without any caution light and could have been interpreted in multiple ways.
Street harassment is a widely discussed and yet under-investigated/legislated subject when it comes to gender-based violence against women/women-identified/trans/gender non-conforming and queer folks. It has been prevalent for eons and has still managed to escape harsher laws by way of social conditioning that softens its blows by couching them in gratuitous euphemisms like “catcalling” or “eveteasing”.
Statistics around street-harassment are staggering and very revealing of how widespread its impact is while also shedding light on how little is available as respite against it —
In 2014, SSH commissioned a 2,000-person national survey in the USA with surveying firm GfK. The survey found that 65% of all women had experienced street harassment. Among all women, 23% had been sexually touched, 20% had been followed, and 9% had been forced to do something sexual. Among men, 25% had been street harassed (a higher percentage of LGBT-identified men than heterosexual men reported this) and their most common form of harassment was homophobic or transphobic slurs (9%).
Eighty-five percent of women in the United States experience street harassment before the age of 17, according to research by ILR and Hollaback!, a non-profit organization.
Survey findings from the nearly 4,900 respondents who live in the U.S. showed:
Sixty-seven percent experienced harassment before age 14
Seventy-seven percent under age 40 reported being followed by a man or group of men in the past year in a way that made them feel unsafe
Fifty-seven percent under age 40 felt distracted at school or work due to street harassment
Half reported they have been groped or fondled during the past year
For more info, visit Hollaback!
These studies & figures resonate with women in any part of the world even though there is still comparatively fewer instances of meaningfully engaged and woc-centered research emerging from developing countries because we are often calculated in the shadow of a white-focused ethnography. Socioculturally the idea of street harassment is bolstered by the perpetuation of toxic masculinity as merely a superficial phase in male hypersexuality that is treated like a toddler incapable of restraining its own bodily functions. Privilege is a comorbid articulation. It has multiple valences and functions across a range of unearned advantages. The privilege of being a man in a world pivoting on patriarchal structures. It assembles itself in all shapes and forms. It encompasses intersectional gradients and acts innocuously when interrogated for some of the injustices it perpetrates as if to blink and say – Who me? Never!
From mansplaining to manspreading, while on one hand sexism continues to retain its license to coerce regressive and virulent worldviews of gender and sexuality to make it a daily ordeal for women navigating public spaces, there has been prolific and concerted efforts by women to fight back and reclaim these spaces as their own.
We wanted to highlight these efforts and in order to do so we took a look at women/woman-identified creators who have harnessed the power of art to speak against street harassment –
Kubra Khademi – In 2015, a young Afghan performance artist named Kubra Khademi conducted an 8-minute walk through the streets of Kabul dressed in an armour. Her objective was boldly expose the ordeals of women in Afghanistan due to street harassment. Khademi’s bio states that “through her practice, [Khademi] explores her life as a refugee and a woman.” Dressed in a metallic vest, Khademi walked the crowded pathways as eyebrows were arched to hit the hairline and jaws were dropped to the pit of bellies. Men of all ages followed her with expressions of amusement, disdain and outright disgust marking their faces. She continued her walk despite the increasing camel train of jeers and wolf-whistles that combined a particularly heinous version of public mockery with thinly-veiled misogyny. The vapid curiosity juxtaposed against the doctrinaire of considering the “fairer” sex inferior, reserved for cloisters and corners. This performance piece was a particularly brave stance for a woman in Afghanistan which has one of the poorest track records for preventing violence against women. To no one’s surprise, post her very public act of defiance, she was forced to flee the country and take refuge in France due to a teeming front of death threats. However, Khademi continues her work as an artist focused on shedding light about women’s rights through her feminist art.
Blank Noise Project – In August of 2003, Jasmeen Patheja – a prolific artist & activist – initiated a community art project at Srishti School of Art Design and Technology in Bangalore, India, which has since then gradually spread to multiple cities and communities both locally and globally. The central premise for BNP was to trigger public dialogue against street harassment and particularly invoke the agency that was ill-placed or negated when watered down terms such as “eveteasing” were used to parse a careful reduction out of its deeply harmful impact. Blank Noise encouraged women to send their stories about along with the garment or a photograph of the garment they were wearing when a particular incident of abusive behavior had happened. In a conversation, Patheja mentioned to me that they intend to organize a publicly display of the clothes collected by them over the years in order make it clear that there is no correlation between your choice of clothing and getting sexually, physically or verbally harassed. Culturally people are more likely to ask a woman what she was wearing when she was assaulted or abused than ask a perpetrator why he performed an act of sexual violence. Keeping this in mind, Blank Noise attempts to collect and curate significant visual evidence that stands in direct contradiction to this mentality. The other aspect of curating is also inviting the spectators to bear witness and ask the crucial question – What prevents bystander intervention? Aside from this, Blank Noise employs a variety of strategies including public theater, staged protests and an ever-growing community of “Action Heroes” as well as social media engagements through #INeverAskForIt, #ReportingToRemember, #WalkAlone to spotlight the problems spawned by street harassment and violence against women.
#Undress522 – In August of 2017, Lebanon’s parliament scraped an archaic and iniquitous law that allowed rapists in the country to escape a prison term if they agreed to marry their victims. One of the reasons this repeal happened was on account of continued & vociferous organized protests both on-ground and digitally. There were significant campaigns directed towards casting this law to the dumpster and one of the more controversial ones was a morbid display of wedding gowns hanging from nooses in Beirut’s popular sea-front. This macabre installation was the brainchild of Lebanese artist Mireille Honein who was supported in her endeavor by ABAAD – a Lebanese organization that aims to provide space and resources for gender equality and helps fight violence against women in Beirut. The public exhibit named “#Undress522” had a collection of 31 bridal dresses swaying from the palm trees of Ain El Mraysseh in a crowded and tourist-heavy part of the city. This was an attempt to get the national parliament’s attention and help abolish what many considered a draconian piece of legislation. The much-debated display ignited worldwide discussions and spotlighted the issue globally hoping to add more pressure on the Lebanese government. It seemed to have worked well rising above the herd of arguments in opposition to it.
Stop Telling Women to Smile – Most women have had at least one if not many instances of walking down a street or getting into the subway in a rush to get to work or home or just about anywhere and suddenly being asked to “smile” by some creepily lurking dude – a random stranger who assumes and demands a form of subservient politeness. In Brooklyn of 2012, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh – an artist, illustrator and activist – started a street art project called “Stop Telling Women To Smile” as a creative callout designed to tackle the issue of gender specific street harassment. The women in Fazlalizadeh’s graffiti art refuse to smile and thereby refuse to yield their body and its myriad expressions and/or movement to any usurping by the male gaze. STWTS adorns public spaces and streets globally serving a pertinent reminder against objectification of women in public spaces.
Cheer Up Luv – Photojournalist Eliza Hatch defines her crowdsourced feminist-centered photojournalism project as follows – “The aims of this project are to show how society normalizes sexual harassment, and how we, as women, learn to accept that being told to ‘cheer up’ on our way to school is a normal thing. It is something that happens to women every day, and this is a documentation of those experiences.” Hatch, like most women artists on this list, started because of personal experiences with gender based harassment and through CUL, she hopes that she can reverse the narrative of women feeling helpless and cornered in the spaces where they are most vulnerable and instead use those very surroundings as a platform form where their stories could be recited and heard subtracted from the enduring stigma. She also wants those who engage with the project as readers and audience to enter the dialogue as a listener-witness who is willing to immerse themselves in the stories being presented by marshaling energies that signify both fortitude & vulnerability. The website serves as a repository – a visual cyberdiary of sorts – to document the photographs and by extension, the spaces where the women in the photographs experienced some form of emotional, psychological or physical harassment. Each story has a revealing title –“ I didn’t want to confront him” reads the very first one by Tash. As you scroll, you come across more harrowing accounts of women from all demographics within the UK writing about their individual experiences with gender-based violence. This curation is a necessary instrument with which to inspect the pervasive tendencies a society inculcates towards brushing off incidents of street harassment as a ‘rite of passage’ v/s the scarring impact they have on those who have to experience the violence without any immediate empathic witnesses.
We would like to hold space for you about your experiences with street harassment either as a survivor or a witness. You can write to us at themiraproject [at] gmail [dot] com or visit us at The Mira Project & submit your account under your name or even anonymously if you so wish to.
We would also love to expand this initial essay into a continued roundup of artists/writers responding to subjects of violence, gender and mental health. If you wish to recommend more folks we should consider for our next list, your can tweet us your recommendations @zaharaesque.
Photograph : Nathan Lemon