Take to the Streets & Demand your Rights

“When women work together, it’s a bond unlike any other.”
– Victoria Principal

At times when change is needed in society, the streets become more important than ever. When our minds are full of fear or worry, and when a problem is right there but no one will look directly at it – action needs to be taken. When it seems no one will raise their voice and insecurity becomes part of daily life, we start to understand the importance of the streets as more than just roads.

For people who agree that public problems are political matters, streets can be the best places to express ideas.

Great movements have been made from the streets. They give space to everyone; a person, two more, and a bunch of groups of people. People pay attention to those brave enough to speak, out loud and in public, for what they believe in.

If everyone stayed at home, sick and tired of discrimination, then nothing would ever get better. But when you find people who share your desire for freedom and equal rights, then nothing can stop you.

Our global history has been shaped by those who have taken to the streets to demand their needs and rights.

The world wouldn’t be the same if Martin Luther King Jr. hadn’t occupied public space. If women hadn’t gone out to march for their right to vote, society wouldn’t be the same today.

Women have long tried to empower themselves by exposing inequality, even when the system seems almost totally against them. Today, women, and some great men (with hopefully many more to come), are fighting the patriarchal systems that oppress women and restrict men.

Women continue to claim the streets as places to raise our voices and express ourselves.

It is on the streets that we can make the violence, persecution and oppression facing women visible. In public spaces we can demand what we deserve: rights and equal recognition of our role in society. Because women matter.

Peaceful protest is part of our right to free expression. It is a right that hasn’t always been enjoyed by all women around the world, and continues to be denied to many.

If you are able to raise your voice – my advice is to do it! Meet with your friends in public places, speak up about street harassment, open up space where women can feel safe to speak. Go ahead and give feminism what it needs – your voice.

We need to remember the importance of public space for activism.

Our streets hold great power and potential for social organization. Women can achieve monumental changes. And we should keep trying to do so, because the fight of some should be the fight of all.

Women are Claiming Back the Streets of Mexico

Three months ago, I was sexually harassed on the street near my university campus. For several blocks, a man followed me as he tried to start a conversation at a very uncomfortable distance with invasive questions. After he unabashedly commented on my looks, I turned around to ask him whether he knew that what he was doing was street harassment. He told me I was overreacting as he was “only complimenting” me.

After that, things got worse. He continued following me, but he wasn’t calling me pretty anymore. Instead, he was thoroughly describing what he would do to me if we were alone. Some people stared at us. I’m sure some of them heard his words or saw my tears. But they did nothing.

When I told my story very few were surprised. In fact, many put the blame on me for walking on my own. When I asked about the possibility of checking CCTV footage from nearby stores, they called me dramatic. According to them, it wasn’t that big a deal. But it was.

Our authorities have made previous unsuccessful attempts to take a stand against the growing rate of gender-based violence in Mexico. However, in February this year the House of Representatives unanimously categorized street harassment as a felony in accordance with the General Law for Women’s Access to a Life Without Violence. It’s currently waiting for the Senate’s approval to come into force.

In 2017, Mexico City – ranked sixth worst megacity for women in the world – hosted UN Women’s global forum on safe cities for women and girls. Mexico City’s government has also gradually invested more in the subway’s ‘pink cars‘ program and launched the app ‘ViveSegura’ so that women can report where they’ve been victims of sexual violence in order to map risk-areas.

And so although the authorities are taking some action, it is still not enough. It’s important to keep in mind that Mexico City has a privilege that no other Mexican city has: it’s the capital, and therefore, it’s the center of attention. It’s one of the few cities in the country, if not the only one, that has studies on both sexual harassment and street harassment.

I believe part of the problem is that sexual violence is normalized to the point that it seems like an intrinsic way of thinking among many Mexicans. The ease with which perpetrators can commit these crimes is the result of a culture of normalization that includes victim blaming and telling women to fear public space because we are not safe there.

So, what’s missing when it comes to street harassment?

“I think authorities are trying to stop street harassment. But a real change would require a major structural change, and no one is doing it,” said Ana Pandal, co-creator of Organización Genera, a Puebla-based association that seeks to raise awareness of gender-based violence in Mexico. “We must focus on letting people know what street harassment is as well to ensure that both our society and authorities fully reject it.”

With this in mind, they launched the initiative #YoNoAcosoYoDenuncioYDefiendo (#IDontHarassIReportAndSupport). “We’re trying to support victims and to claim back public spaces. They’re not alone and their voices matter. We also want to encourage privileged groups to stop normalizing street harassment and to create a society of active bystanders who won’t remain silent,” added Sara Achik, co-creator of Organización Genera.

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Credit: Sara Achik

The way the campaign works is very simple. After creating a network in a city, the group can access files on Genera’s website where they will find stickers of the campaign’s logo and a girl walking confidently (designed by Mexican artist Valeria Chairez), as well as pamphlets that define and explain street harassment. The members of the group then put these stickers in places where women feel unsafe and post pictures on social media using the hashtags. The goal is to show that they’re not afraid and that public spaces are for everyone who wants to make use of them.

I walked by myself on the street where I was sexually harassed so that I could put up these stickers. I felt no fear. I stopped hearing the words of my harasser. All I could hear was a sentence in my head that repeated itself like a mantra: “the streets are ours”.

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.

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.