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By Krithika Sukumar
We had the opportunity to interact with students at the Alliance Française de Madras last week and in the process, to speak about street sexual harassment to a large cross-section of people, of varying ages and backgrounds, who are very much in public spaces. We met about a dozen classes, some packed, some with just a handful of students, and spoke to them about what street sexual harassment actually means – that it can affect women and sometimes men, of all ages, and can range from catcalls to sexual assault in any public space at any time of the day.
Although in most classrooms, we were initially met with attentive silence, sometimes voices would volunteer stories of street harassment – a man who spoke of a time when several female friends were groped in a crowded theatre, a woman who recounted how she had called out a man who had been taking pictures of her on his mobile phone, caught him red-handed and deleted the pictures. We also had to clarify a couple of times, that no, provocative dressing, if we consider the many real accounts from women who have been dressed in traditional Indian attire and still been groped, has little to do with it.
More than once, we were asked the question, ‘why talk about street harassment? Why share my story on your website, what would come of it?’ Of course, anyone who has ever written on their personal blogs about being harassed in a public space will tell you it was a cathartic experience. And then of course, speaking about harassment in a forum where you know you are not the only one who has experienced it also contributes to the healing process. And maybe, a forum with documented stories of street harassment from across the city will eventually encourage more concrete action, from policy-makers and law enforcement – there’s hope still. But most of all, we have no reason to remain silent, to accept being harassed in public spaces and ‘deal with it’. Instead of wondering who the faceless stranger was that groped you in a crowded store and feeling helpless, you can call out the act and acknowledge that it’s not okay and that it makes you angry.
When conversing with our audience we found again that everyone has their own immediate response to being harassed in a public space – some shout and embarrass the harasser, some others use pins or high heels to wordlessly tell them to back off, others simply walk away. But whatever you choose to do, even if you choose to physically or verbally retaliate to the harasser, the feeling of being wronged and a bitter aftertaste remain long after the day has ended, and that is why we must speak out – because street harassment cannot and must not be accepted. And because public spaces are just that – they are meant for everyone. And as equals, men and women must have access to it, without any discomfort or fear of being harassed.
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