Street Sexual Harassment Needs to Stop

In light of the massive unveiling of what may have been Hollywood’s biggest secret, sexual harassment is a topic currently trending in all spheres of social media. Harassment is a reality that most women (and men) have encountered at some stage in their lives. It exists in all manner of forms – in the workplace, at school or even in the streets.

Growing up in Zimbabwe, street sexual harassment was familiar and common within my community. I would often read stories of women wearing what was deemed ‘inappropriate’, and subsequently having their clothes ripped off by complete strangers – gangs of men who were self-appointed morality officers. It was quite horrifying to read about such incidences.

My first personal encounter with street harassment may have been at the tender age of eleven or twelve. As a pubescent pre-teen feeling the awkwardness of my changing body, I would find myself fearful of walking in public wearing anything that accentuated my budding breasts or widening hips and buttocks.  I lived in baggy T-shirts and pants. I would make sure to avoid walking past a group of men, or any male for that matter, as doing so often seemed to be understood as an invitation for unsolicited conversation. I would hear jeers and remarks such as “sister”, “sweetie”, “ baby”.

I feel strongly that no one should have to experience sexual harassment, and especially not on a regular basis. Yet that is the reality for many young African women and girls, especially if they rely on public transport or work in male dominated spaces.

Many young women, myself included, are constantly seeking measures that can be undertaken for prevention and protection. One young Dutch woman used social media to capture images of her street harassers and call them out publicly on a worldwide platform. Though this seems very bold for me in my context, I commended her efforts because it brought a spotlight on what is a global issue for women all over the world. 

Wherever you live, there are steps that can be undertaken to address street harassment (while making sure your personal safety is always your first priority!). For example:

  1. Respond to the harassers in a calm, assertive manner – “Stop it. No one likes it. Show some respect.
  2. Name the behaviour, especially if it’s physical, and make a command – “Your hand is on my leg. Remove it now.
  3. Be an active bystander and intervene if witnessing harassment
  4. Share your experience with others

It’s also important to have men as allies when it comes to street sexual harassment. We need men to realise the damaging and traumatic affect it has on women. We need men to realise that they have no entitlement to female bodies or spaces, and – importantly – we need men to speak out against harassment when witnessed and not to turn a blind eye.

My hope is that very soon, all people everywhere can walk confidently in public streets and spaces without fear of physical, emotional or verbal sexual harassment being inflicted upon them.

When Security is Sexist

I was surprised, and yet not surprised, to be flagged as a high-security risk on my latest trip to the United States from the Middle East. I’ve received the infamous red “SSSS” stamp on my boarding pass before, the four letters that stand for “secondary security screening selection,” and I’ve gone through finger prints and pictures and pat-downs before getting on a plane. Resigned to the scrutiny, I usually don’t give it much thought.

But this time the secondary screening was more invasive, more intrusive, more dehumanizing. Was it that the Trump administration heightened precautions and narrowed definitions of rights? Was it that someone, somewhere disapproves of the patchwork of stamps from conflict-ridden places in my passport? Was it that I was traveling alone and therefore I, with my long hair pulled up in a bun and dangling earrings, seemed like an easy way to reach a quota of people screened?

Whatever it was, I was pulled aside for my bag to be searched by a man who insisted on calling me “girl.” Out of all of the suspicious items – including a laptop and two cell phones that would have provided a mountain of information were I actually a threat – this man focused on my toiletry bag. After smearing my lipstick on the table and blowing onto my powder, he smirked as he unwrapped each of my menstrual pads, ran his hands over them and then held them up for his male colleagues.

Let that simmer. He unwrapped and touched each and every pad and held them up for his male colleagues.

This was supposed to embarrass me. I didn’t flinch because working with adolescent girls means I talk about menstruation as comfortably as most people order lunch. So instead I stood there, responding to his smirk with a cold glare, as he played a sex-intimidation game that had no place in an airport, no place during entry to the United States, no place anywhere. After having spread bacteria over something that was once sanitary, he ordered the more invasive “body search.” The woman who ran her hands up my bra was apologetic, but the men who looked on were not.

This experience was an infuriating reminder that women’s bodies – and all bodies of people who have been othered – remain battlegrounds, sites of search and seizure, sites of exploitation and sites of terrorism. If we differ from the socially constructed norm, we reflect something that must be checked, controlled and owned. For women and girls, our bodies have been made sites of customized-by-culture abuse and exploitation.

In the United States, intimate partner violence makes the most dangerous place for a woman her own home. In Jordan, victims of rape are imprisoned if not killed by family in the name of so-called “honor.” In China, there are more men and boys than women and girls due to sex-selective abortion that eliminates girls before they are born. And in airports, check-points and other spaces in-between, women can be touched and groped and fondled under the guise of security.

This airport encounter is more than crude behavior; this is one of many transgressions so intertwined with daily life that it is difficult to tease it out as a transgression. It doesn’t seem horrifying in that this kind of thing happens all of the time. And as I tackle the big and bold issues impacting marginalized girls, I fall into the pattern of accepting the transgressions in my own life as both inevitable and relatively harmless.

But they are not inevitable. And they are not harmless. These small acts violate human dignity and reflect a larger, systemic sexism and misogyny that is directly connected to those big and bold issues.

I always seem to have a solution in my work. I can talk about solutions to end child marriage and strategies to curtail trafficking for hours, but I can be speechless when it comes to everyday sexism and misogyny. We’ve named the big issues, we’ve shed light on them and we’ve developed (somewhat of) a consensus that issues like child marriage and trafficking must be addressed. But it is somehow still OK to catcall, harass, coercive and intimidate girls and women, especially when done by those in power, because these issues are more nebulous and are made out to be benign.

The conclusion I can draw is that silence normalizes; words disrupt. And so we must speak loudly and boldly to disrupt the normalcy of sexual intimidation, coercion and abuse. These nebulous issues must be given a shape by our words. We cannot fight the threat that exists in the dark, but we certainly can fight the one we’re shining the light on.

Does it Actually Matter if Shoes are Sexist?

British footwear company Clarks has been exposed, not for the first time, as being openly sexist and discriminatory in its product range and branding. This time, the company has been called out for a dubbing a range of girls’ school shoes ‘Dolly Babe‘, while the boys’ equivalent range is called ‘Leader‘.

I am sure that many people would hope or believe that the reasons this is problematic are self-evident, and that the reasons it’s unacceptable are patently obvious. I certainly did at first, but now I’m starting to think again.

These shoes have sat, and continue to sit, both on shop shelves on and website pages. (Clarks claims to have pulled ‘Dolly Babe’ shoes, but ‘Leader’ shoes remain on sale and a quick Google search shows me that I could easily buy a pair of ‘Dolly Babe’ girls’ shoes right now from a selection of other websites like Amazon).

Parents have taken home shoeboxes with those names written on the sides. The woman who posted a complaint about the difference in quality between shoes for girls and shoes for boys on Clarks’ Facebook page last year attracted considerable trolling about the frivolity of her argument. A group of functioning adults have, in the recent past, sat in a meeting room in an office and nodded their heads in agreement that ‘Dolly Babe’ was a great piece of branding. I’m starting to wonder if we need to start spelling things out.

A doll is a small model of a human figure.

A dolly is a inanimate toy for children to play with.

A dolly is a term used informally to describe a young woman who is perceived to be sexy but unintelligent.

A babe is a physically attractive person.

A babe is a term used informally to describe or address a person you find sexually attractive.

Calling shoes for female children Dolly Babe is not merely silly. It’s not merely offensive or outdated or misguided. It is a double whammy of dehumanisation and sexualisation of children that is revolting.

Calling shoes for male children Leader is damaging too. Boxing all small boys into hyper-masculinity is as problematic as boxing all small girls into hyper-femininity. The dichotomy does as much of a disservice to our boys as it does to our girls.

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, described the situation as “almost beyond belief” in 2017.

According to the BBC, Clarks has removed the ‘Dolly Babe’ range from its website following “customer feedback” about the name. They said, “We are working hard to ensure our ranges reflect our gender-neutral ethos“, and “We apologise for any unintended offence caused“.

We read the articles, we tut and shake our heads and say, “isn’t that shocking. In 2017!”. We turn the page of our paper. And we wonder why change happens so painfully slowly. Yes, it’s a great step that this kind of gender discrimination is being called out on social media, and it’s great that it makes it into the newspapers, but it’s not enough anymore to be shocked, or offended, or incredulous.

At a moment like this, a company like Clarks has an incredible opportunity to push forward genuine change. To be real leaders themselves. What if, instead of stiffly saying that they are “sorry for any offence caused” and crossing their fingers that the British public will soon find something else to talk about, they came forward and said “there’s a real problem here with the gender biases we impose on 3 and 4 year old children, and the impact this has on society as a whole shouldn’t be underestimated”?

What if they were transparent and said, “we don’t have all the answers but we’re working hard to make sure that we are neither creating nor enforcing any discriminatory stereotypes through our products”? What if they used the media attention they’re receiving to be bold? What if they launched a new range, for all children, designed for running and jumping and keeping small toes dry?

So ok, I’ll admit, this is hardly a life-or-death situation. There is plenty else going on in the world today deserving of our attention, worry and brainpower. But the problems we face on a global scale require a generation of smart, strong, confident, thoughtful and inclusive young people to solve them. A generation split into Dolly Babes and Leaders from the age of 4 aren’t going to be up to that task. The branding of these school shoes matters, because the ideas we plant into children’s brains directly determine the kind of people they grow to be. And the kind of people who make up the world really, really matters.

Hello Spring, Hello Sexual Harassment

London is at it’s most beautiful in the spring. After many dreary months the city fills up with candy-floss blossom and slightest breeze scatters pink and white confetti over the pavements. Parks fill with daffodils. Occasionally the sun shines for two days in a row – although this leaves everyone confused and suspicious. Londoners begin barbecuing everything within arm’s reach (and inexplicably wearing sunglasses on the tube).

But one of the very best things about spring is the liberation from the shackles of the Winter Wardrobe it brings. Freed from socks and boots, toes wriggle joyfully in sandals once again. Coats are confidently packed away til next year (or ‘til it randomly snows in June). Legs escape the prison of thick black tights, shoulders are bared, noses are burnt.

But flash so much as a bit of ankle in springtime and it won’t be long before you’re reminded of a far less welcome consequence of the warm weather. Not absent in winter by any means, just rarer – and more subdued. Welcome back, spring. Welcome back, regular sexual harassment and verbal abuse from total strangers in the street. How I have not missed you.

This year seems particularly bad. For the past couple of weeks my body has felt like it must have a sign that says Open for Public Review. Only I didn’t write that sign. I don’t know who did.

First came the standard whistles/smirks/”alright darling“s that are so frequent that they blend into the fabric of daily life as a young female in the UK. Then, two men in a van drove in circles round the streets to follow me as I walked home from work. On circle one they blew kisses and winked at me. Circle two was an observation on my appearance. Circle three was an obscenity and on the fourth they called me a miserable slut.

I wanted to feel angry and indignant, but mainly I felt very frightened. I wanted to keep my head up and walk tall or to shout something cuttingly clever back at them, but I was shaking and my mouth was dry and I was looking around for the reassuring sight of strangers. The only people I could see were construction workers at the building site at the end of the road. They sat talking in a row on a wall and fell silent as I approached, having watched the whole thing.

I put my head down. Their eyes bored into me as I passed and I suddenly felt very, very sick of feeling like a sad gazelle being eyed by lions. Very, very sick of being looked at in that way that can only be described as predatory. Under his breath, one of them said: “lighten up, for f**k’s sake“.

It’s not a special story and it’s certainly not a rare one. I don’t know exactly how often things like this happen to my friends because it’s difficult to talk about it. There is stigma attached to saying you’ve been whistled at in the street, because it still holds some awful suggestion amongst women that you’re implicitly describing yourself as good-looking. It’s difficult to talk about it with men because it doesn’t happen when they’re with me.

A friend once told me a story from his childhood. He told me that he’d been playing football but had scored an own-goal, causing his team to lose the entire match; a devastating humiliation for any 8-year-old. Determined to cheer this little boy up, the football coach let him sit in the front seat of his van and they went for a drive. The extra special treat? Honking the horn at the women they drove past.

I was disturbed by this the moment I heard it, but the more times I am thrust into a public conversation about my body that I didn’t choose to be in, the more it disgusts me.  I don’t ever want to have a son in a world where little boys are taught that abuse is entertainment. I don’t ever want to have a daughter in a world where being leered and shouted at is normal, and obscene threats of sex are quotidian and shrugged off.

London really does look beautiful in spring. I just wish the season didn’t declare my body open for judgement, simply because I’ve taken off my tights.

The Banality of Inequality.

On an assignment taking photographs at a government meeting, the session had adjourned for coffee when one of the district representatives approached me and asked my name and my position. I answered that I was an intern, and shook his hand. He held onto it long after was socially acceptable, rubbed my ring finger and said he noticed I ‘wasn’t wearing a ring, so obviously I was single’. Trying to be polite but firm, I said no, but I was happy with that, and attempted to pull my hand away. He refused to let go and asked why someone like me was working when they should be married and that he was willing to fix my singledom for me. When I finally managed to disengage myself physically, he followed me around the room asking why I wasn’t replying to his proposal until the meeting restarted.

Though not shaken or threatened by the experience, I was annoyed. I had dressed properly for the occasion and conducted myself professionally – not that either of these issues is an excuse for unwanted attention or improper behavior. I also know with certainty that in no way I had indicated interest towards this man Had I approached any professional working man in the same manner, I would have undoubtedly faced sanctions from my boss. It bothered me that someone could be following me around, in clear view, giving me insistent unwanted attention and that it was accepted as normal because I was a girl and my gender trumped my presence there as a working professional. Yet what most frustrated me was that I was completely unsurprised. Since 18, I’ve been aware that I live in a culture that classifies me as a single woman first and a professional colleague second.

Image courtesy of the Everyday Sexism Project
Image courtesy of the Everyday Sexism Project

This is a common enough scenario faced by women in the workplace, on the street and in schools. Both at work and at home, women have made significant strides, and are, in general, given much more credibility and respect. Yet in many places, in many cultures, an underlying tendency towards sexism and relegating women to a second-class status persists.

Having grown exasperated with this herself, Laura Bates founded the Everday Sexism Project,  an online platform which documents the quotidian nature of sexism though brief descriptions of everyday acts. They range from irritating-but-innocuous to strikingly misogynistic to downright violent. Women describe everything from being catcalled, harassed on public transportation, on the street, during job interviews or in offices, being physically struck for refusing advances and detail multiple sexual assaults.

Image courtesy of the Everyday Sexism project
Image courtesy of the Everyday Sexism project

Though empowering to many, Bates has suffered hate mail, death threats and rape threats as a result of founding the site, as well as a number of unflattering articles labeling her as ‘whiny’ and complaining about ‘first world problems’ instead of getting a ‘real job’. Other women have attacked the site, calling it, “a nag’s charter of modern day feminism.” It is true that the Everyday Sexism project does have the unfortunate side effect of vilifying men, many of whom are as pro-women’s rights as Gloria Steinham herself. But the message behind the project isn’t to paint men as the enemy, but rather to shine a spotlight on the very real, very strong presence of misogyny in a culture that would much rather pretend it no longer exists.

It is true that, to a certain extent, both men and women experience sexism and sexual objectification. However, what the everyday sexism project shows and what women’s everyday experience tells us is that for women, the attention is more often violent, more often threatening and most disturbingly, more often accepted. The most chilling part of the everyday sexism project is how rarely onlookers intervene. It may be that this the result of the natural tendency to remain separate from public scuffles or create tension in the workplace. But if we as a society are more comfortable with remaining quiet about behavior that threatens, demeans or harms our female colleagues, friends and family members than we are outraged that such behavior takes place at all, one has to question oneself about the kind of society we are constructing.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr user Hossam el-Hamalawy (image listed under Creative Commons)