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Earlier this month, thousands of people from around the world, including activists against sexual harassment, campaigners for gender justice and ordinary citizens, came together to celebrate International Anti-Street Harassment Week (7-13 April 2013). This annual global movement, spearheaded by the advocacy group Stop Street Harassment, seeks to end the silence around street sexual harassment, and to make public places safer for women, for sexual minorities, and for anyone who has felt unwelcome and excluded in these spaces.
In keeping with the spirit of this campaign, we would like to reacquaint you with our work at Hollaback! Chennai, and to outline our plan of action for the future. Hollaback! Chennai was launched in December 2011 (part of the global Hollaback! movement to end street harassment) by Prajnya, a Chennai-based non-profit working towards peace, justice and security. Our aim is to end the pervasive silence surrounding street sexual harassment, by providing a platform for victims to speak out. We do this through our website, where those who have been targetted can write about their experiences, and where they can find support from a community of non-judgmental individuals. In the long-term, we hope that this initiative, and others like it, will allow everyone to make an equal claim to public spaces.
This has not been an easy task; of the plethora of crimes that fall under the scope of ‘gender violence’, street harassment continues to be one of the most underreported. This is because the perpetrators of these acts are often strangers, because they can usually escape with relative ease, because women are socially conditioned to stay silent about this abuse and because there is a general distrust towards the institutions that are meant to deliver justice. Yet, street sexual harassment, which includes catcalling, lewd remarks, deliberately brushing against someone, or touching them, or groping them, flashing private parts, stalking, or outright sexual assault in a public place, is a terrible offence, which leaves victims traumatised, despondent, and worst of all, ashamed. The prevalence of these crimes, which are euphemistically referred to as ‘eve-teasing’ (for more on the importance of language in reporting and discussing gender violence, read Nilanjana Roy’s thoughtful 2009 blog post), is infuriating and disturbing, and we cannot afford to stay silent any longer.
Over the next few months, we hope to expand the scale and reach of Hollaback! Chennai. We will be more active on our social media platforms, so do follow us on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates. We are also planning to launch our website in Tamil, and to publicise the Hollaback! mobile app for smartphones that will allow those who experience harassment, as well as witnesses, to immediately document and record these incidents, thereby placing them in the public domain. We will continue to conduct workshops at local colleges, which we have been doing since our launch, and talk to young women (and men) about street harassment, about their legal rights (Tamil Nadu being the only state in India with specific legislation on street sexual harassment, the Prohibition of Harassment of Women Act, 2002, which was passed in response to the murder of Sarika Shah) and about ‘bystander intervention’, or responding as a witness to these offences.
It is important to remember that sexual harassment, in any form, has nothing to do with sex, or lust, or attraction; it has everything to do with power and control. By staying silent, by not calling out our abusers on their actions, we are letting them continue to control us. We are letting them get away with it. We are letting them win.
So be brave. Stand up. And HOLLA BACK!
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