The first International Anti-Street Harassment Week began yesterday. Running from March 18-24, volunteers in countries from Britain and America, to Egypt and India, will raise awareness and encourage people to share their experiences.
Street harassment varies in character. It may be wolf-whistling, sexual comments, following, and even grabbing. Any behaviour directed towards a person in a public area, and which causes them discomfort, can be regarded as street harassment.
In a survey conducted by Holly Kearl, the founder of Stop Street Harassment, 99 percent of 811 female respondents claimed they had experienced street harassment at some point. Sexual touching or grabbing by a stranger was reported by 57 percent of these women; 18 percent claimed this had occurred to them on at least six separate occasions.
The most extreme examples may soon be outlawed in accordance with the European convention on violence against women, following David Cameron’s recent promise to the legislation.
Kearl cautiously welcomes such legislation: “Laws don’t solve problems but I would support a well-crafted anti-street harassment law since laws do help shape public attitudes and can give survivors more rights.”
The Stop Street Harassment movement began in New York. Kearl declared the first Anti-Street Harassment Day last March. Following a positive response worldwide, with high involvement in marches and online activism, she decided to extend the event to a whole week.
“I organised the week to bring attention to the fact that street harassment is an international problem, and it’s one that keeps women from having the same access to public spaces as men.
“Street harassment reinforces for women that they are supposed to be visually pleasing to men. They are “positively” harassed if they meet beauty standards and ridiculed if they do not. In the US, a lot of men say, “smile for me,” and I know in the UK the phrase is, “cheer up love,” as if women must always be smiling and cheerful for men they don’t even know.”
Vicky Simister, established the London Anti-Street Harassment Campaign (now Anti-Street Harassment UK) following her own experience of this type of behaviour.
“I was followed by a car-load of men in Manor House, London one evening whilst I walked to the tube – for 15 minutes I tolerated whistles, horn-honking and lewd remarks. Eventually the commentary became threatening. I responded by yelling, striking the car and fleeing into the tube station. The men got out and followed me into the tunnel, where they pinned me against the wall. Thankfully passers-by intervened and the British Transport police were called.
“Instead of arresting the men, however, I was told I had ‘provoked’ the assault by not handling my attackers ‘compliments’ the ‘right way’. I had the matter referred to the Metropolitan Police, who told me there was ‘no point’ in pressing charges and they could not police what people say.
“That’s when I realised that we have a serious problem in our society, when even the police think it’s acceptable to sexually harass women on the streets.”
Simister is also positive about the potential for new legislation to make a difference.
“We have laws against sexual harassment in the workplace, but for some reason we don’t feel the need to protect people from sexual harassment on the streets. I think we need specific police training on how to handle these sorts of complaints, and local councils need to back this up. We need research into where the harassment ‘hot-spots’ are so that we can have more constables patrolling these areas – particularly at weekends.”
Simister and teams of volunteers will spend Anti-Street Harassment Week talking to both men and women on the streets of London, asking them to pose with the slogan, ‘Flirting. Harassment. Real men know the difference’.
The pictures will be displayed on the ASH campaign website, and are to be turned into a video campaign and art installation.
Julia Gray, like Simister, sees London as a city particularly fraught with harassment. Gray co-founded the London branch of Hollaback! – a web campaign that encourages harassed individuals to post stories, and even pictures of their harassers, which are then plotted on a city map.
Gray said: “I grew up in London, so I experienced harassment from a young age. At the time we established the website I was in a relationship with somebody who would say, ‘you shouldn’t have worn that’, or, ‘’you shouldn’t have walked home alone’. I was really frustrated by the situation.
“You’ve got to talk about it. Otherwise, it’s internalised and becomes dangerous – you find yourself adjusting what you wear, and avoiding certain places. We don’t want to accept that.”
East London is no exception to this. In a brief survey of 20 women, every one had their own story of street harassment to share.
“I was getting the night bus home from Camden, we were sitting in the back and a guy tried to rob my friend of her wallet. She said: ‘don’t rob my wallet, that’s terrible’. The guy started shouting abuse at her and then the bus driver kicked all of us off the bus at the same time, which was really outrageous.
General harassment happens quite a lot if you’re walking around where the stations are. There’s quite a lot of people that just hang out there and shout out stuff, and they’re looking for a rise out of you, so back in the day I probably would’ve shouted back, but now I just don’t say anything, and keep on walking – which is cowardly, but it does stop escalating the violence.”
“I was coming out off Oxford Street tube station and I was on my phone and he brushed past me, but he just groped my boob as he walked past. I get really angry at stuff like that, and it’s not brilliant, but I swung my shoulder back and slammed it into his. He then had the cheek to look affronted.”
“Around Christmas I had an American man come up to me in the street saying, ‘you look so beautiful, it’s festive, let’s go get a drink’. I was just like, ‘leave me alone’.
I’ve been beeped at by cars a lot too. I get angry. I have said stuff to them before. I said something to this one guy, he said, ‘I’m just trying to be friendly’. I just told him to get lost.”