Tasneem Kakal is an advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights. Born and raised in Mumbai, she spent 5 years taking a daily train to and from university. In this interview with Girls’ Globe, Tasneem tells us what the experience taught her about navigating public space as a young woman.
“I would walk up the stairs and go to my platform in this huge crowd of people. And I realized I was doing something that I didn’t know I was doing…”
We all have the right to move through the world without fear. Public space should be accessible to all, regardless of gender. By raising her voice and bringing attention to the everyday nature of inequality, Tasneem stands in solidarity with other women and girls.
“I had to push the boundaries, little by little.”
This video was made possible through a generous grant from SayItForward.org to support women’s advocacy messages.
For a long time, sexual harassment and assault have remained unspoken, well-kept secrets that women have felt ashamed of acknowledging.
A major shift has taken place this year, alongside the accusations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. A decade ago, I couldn’t have imagined that so many women around the world had experienced sexual coercion or intimidation. Now, I’d be surprised if I could find a single woman I know who hasn’t.
Earlier this month, actor Alyssa Milano took to Twitter and wrote:
Personal stories quickly began pouring in from women and men all across the world. The hashtag #MeToo has become a rallying cry against sexual assault and harassment. Before long, it had become about so much more than Harvey Weinstein.
I remember being subjected to harassment long before I even knew what harassment or assaults were. School-going boys. Middle-aged men. Married men. A policeman. That boy who considers himself a ‘feminist’. Colleagues. On the bus. Across the pavements. In a queue. At a temple. The touch that was made to look accidental. That ‘friendly’ squeeze. The head-to-toe stare that makes you feel uncomfortable. The offensive comment, the explicit remark. Cyber-bullying. The list goes on.
There’s a long history of victim-blaming in order to protect perpetrators of violence, and to legitimize and normalize sexual harassment and assaults. We are raised in a society that tells us girls get assaulted for a reason. Her skirt was too short, her smile too wide, her breath smelled of alcohol, she was out too late.
Society has long been trivializing sexual violence with dismissive phrases like “boys will be boys”. We have been defining masculinity as dominant and sexually aggressive and femininity as submissive and passive. We’ve spent our energy teaching women to avoid being raped, rather than on teaching men not to rape women.
I think the worst part of being harassed or assaulted is that it makes you forget to be kind to yourself. It makes you question your own existence and forget how to accept yourself. For me, it has taken years of ignorance, silence, self-blame, and internalization, as well as thousands of conversations with friends and family, to feel ‘worthy’ again.
Too many of us choose to suffer in silence because we are afraid speaking up will reduce our identity to being ‘just a victim’. But sharing your story does not make you a victim. Sharing your story, if it’s what you choose and what feels right for you, can be one the bravest things you will ever do. You are a survivor – setting the world on fire with the truth. And you never know who else will benefit from your light, your warmth and your raging courage.
The goal of #MeToo was to give people a sense of ‘the magnitude of the problem.’ The power of #MeToo is that it takes long-standing silence and transforms it into a movement. On one hand, it’s a bold, declarative statement: “I’m not ashamed of what I have been through.” On the other, it’s a reassurance from survivor to survivor: “I feel you and we are all in this together.”
There’s still a monumental amount of work to be done, but exposing the colossal scale of a problem we have kept swept under the rug and hidden in our darkest corners? That is revolutionary in its own right.
Three years ago a close friend and I decided to publish a book of women’s writings in Kabul, Afghanistan. The book, which included more than thirty poems, narratives and essays in Persian was a hit, but we never imagined it would grow to become a living platform for Afghan girls and women who are students, writers, aspiring journalists and poets.
Today, our book, Daughters of Rabia, has grown into a social media blog with more than 50 thousand readers every week and an English website, Free Women Writers, where we translate and share our stories with the world. Our book has gone to six provinces in Afghanistan and more than 125 women and a few men have written for us about issues that impact women’s lives.
This year, we were finally able to launch a scholarship program to support one Afghan woman’s higher education and offer professional guidance to women in Kabul and around the country using the internet. We also began working with a local radio station and two local newspapers to reach people who don’t have internet access.
While writing as a form of protest has existed in Afghanistan and other parts of the world for centuries, more than once contributors to Free Women Writers have used pen names or have asked me to remove a story they wrote for security reasons. On one occasion, a writer who had written about the atrocities of Taliban against women was threatened with death. In another, the relatives of one of the contributors launched character-assassination attacks against her on social media because she had dared to write about gender-based violence in her family. On numerous occasions our blog and social media outlets have been hacked, we’ve been threatened, sent demeaning pornographic images, as many have tried to discourage us from writing.
From their homes to the streets to social media, Afghan women and girls are threatened for simply raising their voices and telling their stories because it is assumed that by discussing the issues they face, they bring shame and dishonor to their communities and to Afghanistan as a whole.
What is still incredible to me is that nearly all our contributors have written for us more than once. Even the women who write with pen names or have been threatened return and write more when they feel ready. They write about the obstacles they face in going to school, about early marriage, about street harassment and sexual violence, and many other forms of discrimination that continue to impact our lives as women and girls. This is a small testimony to the tremendous resilience of women and girls in Afghanistan and around the world.
When we write, we say loud and clear that we won’t be silenced or shunned. In a world where femininity and being female is seen as inferior and shameful and in communities where the most natural parts of our bodies are treated as taboo and a woman’s voice is considered sinful, it is an act of conscious protest when we decide to tell our stories.
Our stories are also a tool for speaking with one another. Patriarchy sustains itself by isolating women and teaching them that the struggles they face are either their own fault or isolated incidents- not a result of existing sexism and patriarchy. When we write our stories, whether they are about violence or any other topic that has shaped us, we build bridges with other women. Together we slowly deconstruct the walls of isolation, competition, and rivalries built to divide us as women.
Afghan women, and women around the world, have realized the power that our stories and our voices have in changing the world. We have decided that the days of silence in the face of injustice and violence are over.
Last week Korea launched its own Hollaback! website. Hollaback! is an organization and online platform that delivers resources, research, and initiatives aimed at ending street harassment. Most importantly, Hollaback! is a portal for individuals to share personal stories about being harassed or having witnessed someone else being harassed, and for others to show their support for those individuals.
According to Hollaback!, “Street harassment is a form of sexual harassment that takes place in public spaces. At its core is a power dynamic that constantly reminds historically subordinated groups (women and LGBTQ folks, for example) of their vulnerability to assault in public spaces. It reinforces sexual objectification of these groups.”
The real motive of street harassment is intimidation. To make its target scared or uncomfortable, and to make the harasser feel powerful.
Hollaback! creates a simple way to take that power away by exposing it. Hollaback! utilizes the technology of smart phones to allow individuals to post occurrences and photos of street harassment in real time, and get immediate support. Hollaback! also maps where street harassment occurred (pink dot) and where bystanders have intervened (green dot) as a way to inform individuals, lawmakers, or police, where harassment may be occurring more often.
Hollaback! emphasizes the importance of reassuring those who are harassed that they are supported, not guilty of bringing a situation upon themselves, and to be empowered to stand up to harassment.
Since Hollaback!’s inception, a new awareness of street harassment in New York has occurred and an international fight against its occurrence is underway. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority joined with the NYPD in a campaign to encourage victims of sexual harassment to report, and Hollaback! websites have been launched in 25 countries and 14 languages.
I found out that there are distinctions among all Hollaback! sites, and each site creates its own goals. Despite the fact that street harassment happens everywhere, the way people respond to it can be influenced by culture and norms. Hollaback! provides resources for individuals regarding how to respond effectively to street harassment. Hollaback! Korea emphasizes the intersectionality of street harassment in Korea. One of their goals is to remain conscious of the fact that anyone can face street harassment regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity, and that their service is responding appropriately to all victims.
One distinction of Hollaback! Korea is that it does not allow photos to be posted to the site because Korean law prevents it. A local police officer participated in the Hollaback! launch Discussion, and provided her insight on effective ways to intervene and report cases of street harassment legally in South Korea. She suggested that it is still important to gather evidence such as taking a photo and contacting the authorities immediately. Her involvement is a sign that there is police support for this issue as well.
A study of street harassment in 143 countries from 2010 found that 43% of people surveyed in one Korean city experienced street harassment, and 79% of those individuals were women. About 72% of the incidents occurred on subway cars, 27.3% on buses, and 1.1% in taxis. Eighteen percent “strongly protested against their assailants” and 6.3% shouted. To see how your country compares, view the data here.
Although Hollaback! Korea was only launched last week, the site has already gathered several stories in both Korean and English, and has hosted four public awareness events around the country!
Hollaback! Korea wants to invite any interested party living in Korea to contact them if they would like to participate in the site’s development, especially those who have experience working on websites, translating from English to Korean, and event planning.