A Discourse on Violence Against Women: Street Harassment

As uncovered throughout the Introduction of this Discourse, violence against women was, until quite recently, predominantly perceived as a private matter. While states have taken necessary and long-overdue actions to protect and support survivors of sexual assault, domestic abuse, trafficking, alongside other forms of flagrant violence, many other, seemingly less severe shapes of violence, have endured. Street harassment is a prime example of a ubiquitously normalized and thereby uncontested form of violence. Throughout the soul-speaking book Stop Telling Women to Smile, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh coalesces art with words as a force to raise awareness of this profuse albeit unabated violence. In her own words, Fazlalizadeh writes, “I’m a portrait artist, so I wanted the work to show the faces of women, and I wanted the women to speak directly to men who harass women on the street. I wanted the work to speak out for women when we couldn’t speak up for ourselves.”

Fazlalizadeh’s project encompasses stories of women from around the world, capturing the intersectionality that influences our daily interactions as womxn. As she eloquently explores this notion, Fazlalizadeh writes, “So many factors contribute to how a person is perceived and treated in the street. For most women, sexualization is only one element in their harassment. Racialized women face racist comments, trans women face transphobia, LGBTQ women face homophobia – and the list goes on to include women with disabilities, women who are poor, women facing homelessness, sex workers. One oppression usually works in tandem with others.”

From following or stalking, to the unsolicited “catcalls” (n. a whistle, shout, or comment of a sexual nature to a woman passing by), and everywhere between or beyond, our societies are inundated with street harassment. This form of violence publicly highlights the staggering and bewildering entitlement that men presume to possess over women; their actions outwardly degrade, belittle and sexualize in plain sight. As opposed to allowing us to walk in our rightful space, these attacks prompt feelings of discomfort and insecurity, collectively perpetuating masculine power and reinforcing female subordination. Fazlalizadeh writes, “I was still a girl when my body began to change. When it started to be ogled, stared at, whispered to, touched, followed. No sooner had I begun to understand my own developing body than it began to no longer feel like my own. It felt like a thing. A thing that men wanted. That was when I started to feel uncomfortable, and unsafe. It seemed as though my body existed for men’s pleasure, and it became something I was forced to dress myself in for others’ enjoyment.”

Street harassment illuminates a paradox, which embodies one of the many double-standards that dictate women’s everyday existence. From a young age, girls are taught that their worth lies in their appearance. Concurrently, girls are socialized to believe that their bodies innately distract or entice boys, who are viewed as unable to control themselves. This hypocrisy highlights yet another disturbing double-bind for women: On the one hand, our value lies in our looks, yet on the other, such beauty will only invite men’s disquieting behavior, which ultimately remains our responsibility to manage. We can see these attitudes apparent in common reactions to street harassment among other forms of violence, when women are asked, “What were you wearing?” “Why were you walking alone?” “Where were your friends?” “Why were you out so late?” “Were you drinking?” Implicit in these probes is the notion that certain responses would grant a man the right to act violently against us. Even more, it leads women to believe that they are somehow complicit in the violence inflicted upon them.

Once, I bitterly recounted an experience of street harassment to a male, who dismissed me by laughing and responding that he would have been “flattered” if a woman had done the same to him. This instance encapsulated only one of many personal experiences with street harassment, but it really stuck with me, as it illuminated not only concepts of ingrained patriarchy and male privilege, but also the very dangerously normalized nature of street harassment and how it directly feeds other forms of violence. When Fazlalizadeh faces related questions in response to her work, such as “How is telling a woman to smile street harassment?” or “How is complimenting a woman sexist?” she provides an astute response, writing, “It’s sexist because women are told to smile as a way of controlling their bodies, their appearance, and their presentation. A man telling a woman to smile dismisses her autonomy over her own body, emotions, and self-expression. It assumes she has an emotional responsibility to always present as happy, pleasant, and approachable – whether or not that is how she feels or what she wants to express… By telling me to smile, men are centering their desire, and forcing me to do the same, even when I don’t comply. My desire, meanwhile, is decentered, erased even. This type of street harassment turns me into an object that will function either in service of what men want or in opposition to it.”

Fazlalizadeh continues, “It is mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting to walk down the street without peace. To wear earbuds, to take a different inconvenient route, to put on a scarf or sweater when it’s eighty degrees outside – all the types of precautions we take to avoid being harassed – and we are still constantly harassed. Hassled. Badgered. Accosted.” On our daily commutes, we often grow accustomed to the precise whereabouts of our perpetrators; the construction workers next to the coffee shop or the man who passes us daily on the sidewalk. We tense, awaiting the ensuing whistle, the belittling names, or the fear that permeates each of these experiences. We change our routes and our clothes. We blast music to drown out the obscenities. The problem lies not only in that we shouldn’t have to cater our lives around the unwelcome behavior of men, but also in the overarching principle that the simple act of walking on the street should not be the charged, draining and traumatizing experience that it is for women today.

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s project aims to combat this phenomenon. She writes, “I created the art series, and now the book, as a way to have my response, which is: What I really want is to be left alone. To walk throughout the world without having to brace myself for humiliation or insults or comments on my body parts. But until that world is here, I’ve used this artwork as a way to push back and have my voice and other women’s voices heard.” She furthers, “Stop Telling Women to Smile is more than a demand from women to leave us alone. It is an assertion, a declaration of women as full human beings, with full emotions and many different facial expressions, who don’t owe it to anyone to change that about ourselves.”

Street harassment, as Fazlalizadeh writes, “is sexual harassment that happens in the public space. It can take the form of anything from a misguided and unwelcome comment from a passerby – ‘Hello, sweetie’ – to cruder catcalling or explicit, often denigrating sexualization. It includes physical encounters that cross the line into assault. It can happen anywhere.” A fundamental piece of this harassment, aside from men overtly asserting their power and possession over us, is the implicit threat of sexual violence or other forms of physical violence behind the action itself. Fazlalizadeh encapsulates this very notion, explaining, “This danger always hangs over our heads. We don’t know if any given interaction will stay within the realm of harassment or tip over into violence. It is something we guard against with awkward smiles at work, keys held between our fingers when we walk down the street, and constant vigilance over our drink cups at parties. The threat of sexual violence is one that begins when we are young and seems never to abate.”

In November of 2019, Ruth George was walking home from a friend’s house at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she was a student. Donald Thurman saw Ruth walking, thought she was attractive, and began to follow her, making verbal advances, which she ignored. Thurman, angered by the lack of interest, followed Ruth into the parking garage, grabbed her by the throat, and strangled her. He proceeded to sexually assault her, and left her in the garage, dead. These “rejection killings” are telling of the toxic, patriarchal societies that we exist in. Street harassment socializes men to believe that they are entitled to us; our time, our emotions, our bodies. And whether we ignore it, speak against it, or cede a smile, there is always an imminent threat that such violence will escalate, regardless of our actions. It can happen everywhere, and in many ways, it has become a part of women’s daily lives.

Fazlalizadeh speaks on this very meaning behind her work, conveying, “The Stop Telling Women to Smile Project is about pinpointing the everyday occurrences of sexism and sexual harassment that women experience and making them visible. It is not enough to say that sexism is wrong and should be dismantled. We have to interrogate the sexism that occurs throughout our lives – even the seemingly small, trivial instances. Because if we do not challenge those moments – being told to smile, being called sweetie, being touched, even gently, without our consent – they pave the way for even worse behaviors to be normalized and accepted.”

While perpetually existing in this toxic paradigm, brimming with inequality and injustice, I wonder if it might be possible to legislate a resolution to street harassment. In my home state of Massachusetts, laws surrounding harassment in the public space are vague, and as they stand, go largely unenforced. In other states in the USA, alongside many countries around the world, related laws are equally nebulous, or altogether nonexistent, which leaves me wondering why there isn’t yet a universally recognized and enforced standard to protect the safety of women in public spaces.

Nonetheless, for hope, I look to an incident that took place in Paris during the summer of 2018. Just outside of a café in the heart of the city, a man directed inappropriate gestures at a passerby, Marie Laguerre. The 22-year-old university student turned around, telling the accoster to shut up (Ta gueule!), and proceeded to walk briskly past him. Shortly thereafter, an ashtray flew by her face, missing Laguerre by inches. The man proceeded to march towards her, and as Laguerre turned to confront the perpetrator, he slapped her powerfully. Posting the video caught by a nearby security camera on YouTube, Laguerre wrote in French: “This is unacceptable behavior. It happens every day. These men think they can do anything in the street, who think they are allowed to humiliate us and who don’t like it when we are offended. It’s unacceptable. I am sick of feeling unsafe walking in the street. Things need to change, and they need to change now.” This incident appeared to be the tipping point for an ongoing movement, as the French government promptly enacted legislation that banned street harassment, levying fines for catcalling. France is now one of the most stringent countries in the world when it comes to holding perpetrators accountable for harassment.

This particular instance shows the power of these already-public experiences transgressing into mainstream purview. While street harassment takes place in public area, the anecdotes depicted throughout Fazlalizadeh’s project demonstrate that such experiences are often very private; a burden that each survivor must bear. By bringing these stories and experiences into the public light, we transform their private nature into a public matter for which everyone is responsible, especially men. When film was released of the current President of the United States bragging of groping women, he justified such conversations as “locker-room banter.” The fact that Donald Trump was ultimately elected President demonstrates our ingrained complacency towards men who act in such ways, and our longstanding instruction that teaches women to just “accept it.”

When we cease to tolerate these visceral norms, we will see progress. Societies and cultures will change. To be clear, this shift will only happen when we are no longer complicit, when we speak out, and when we actively believe and support others who do the same.  

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