“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”
– Maya Angelou
“Hey baby, I love you.”
It would be cute, sweet even, if the speaker was my boyfriend. But when it is a stranger on the street, it is not sweet. It is offensive. And it’s called street harassment. Street harassment is something I and many others face every day.
Living in Tanzania, I hear comments like this on a regular, even daily, basis, whether I’m walking, cycling, or taking public transit. On my regular bus route, I’ve been forced to get off a stop early after listening to the loud and offensive comments of a gang of men who were conspiring with the conductor to get off at my stop–just because it was my stop. Riding my bicycle as a white female in Tanzania makes me a curious spectacle, causing me to quickly turn the “death stare” on the numerous cars that slow down for a second look, hanging their phones out the window for a photo or video of me as they pass. It happens so often with strangers that it recently took me a minute to realize it was one of my friends just trying to get a photo of me in action. But it isn’t just because I’m white. In fact, my race even gives me a small bit of immunity. Men might verbally harass me. They might take photos and videos and stare awkwardly. But very, very rarely will they get physical. For Tanzanian women, that isn’t always so true.
“But it’s funny,” some of my male Tanzanian friends say when I bring up the subject. And that, I think, is part of the problem. What seems humorous to the guys catcalling is offensive and even frightening to the women they are objectifying. In my mind, when a random stranger yells out his car window at me, it is isn’t a joke. It isn’t a compliment. That guy doesn’t know me. In many cases, he has only seen me for a passing second–long enough to realize that I’m female. And if being female is all it takes for a guy to objectify and devalue me as an individual, then I take offense to that.
“I’ve always wanted a white wife” is a common phrase among the male police officers that pull me over only to ask me out on a date, or even to propose to me. If being white and female is all it takes for a guy to want me, then I’m not interested. Though certainly not all of my experiences with the Tanzanian police have been negative, it is still disheartening to realize that those meant to serve and protect are often part of the problem.
I would be naive not to realize that the opposite is also true. European and American guys come to Tanzania to “try out” an “African.” And, like the other forms of street harassment, such “requests” are often much more forceful and even physical. This behavior doesn’t stop on the streets, but pervades even the workplace. One of my Tanzanian friends stated that she can’t even count the number of times she has gone to negotiate a contract and been asked for sexual favors instead. Being forced to walk away from a business deal because of sexual harassment is not funny. Ever.
The statistics on street harassment are shocking unless you’re one of the many who experience it:
In 2016, ActionAid conducted a survey on street harassment in a number of countries. They found that 79% of women living in cities in India, 86% in Thailand, and 89% in Brazil have been subjected to harassment or violence in public, as had 75% of women in London, UK.
End Violence Against Women Coalition commissioned YouGov to conduct the first national poll on street harassment in 2016. 64% of women of all ages have experienced unwanted sexual harassment in public places. Additionally, 35% of women had experienced unwanted sexual touching. 85% of women ages 18-24 had faced sexual harassment in public spaces and 45% had experienced unwanted sexual touching.
Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates conducted a nationally representative telephone survey of 612 adult women… From this survey, they found that… 87 percent of American women between the ages of 18-64 had been harassed by a male stranger; and over one half of them experienced “extreme” harassment including being touched, grabbed, rubbed, brushed or followed by a strange man on the street or other public place. 84 percent of women “consider changing their behavior to avoid street harassment.”
Survey findings from the nearly 4,900 respondents who live in the U.S. showed:
- Sixty-seven percent experienced harassment before age 14
- Seventy-seven percent under age 40 reported being followed by a man or group of men in the past year in a way that made them feel unsafe
- Fifty-seven percent under age 40 felt distracted at school or work due to street harassment
- Half reported they have been groped or fondled during the past year
- More than half changed their clothing, refused a social event, chose a different transportation option or felt distracted at school or work due to harassment
- More than a third said they were late for school or work due to street harassment
- Three percent under age of 40 reported finding street harassment flattering.
In less than two weeks, I’ll be in the US. While I will blend in a bit more, and street harassment is less likely to be an annoyance, I just can’t let it go. I can’t forget that, even in Indiana, girls (and guys…lets be honest here, it’s not gender-exclusive anymore) get catcalled and harassed. I can’t ignore the fact that street harassment not only exists, but that its prevalent. Yes. I said it: prevalent. It happens all.the.time. Everywhere.
Street harassment is not even rudely flirtatious. It is an expression of males trying to assert dominance over women and leaves women powerless to respond. At its core, it is offensive, because it is the expression of the idea that a man has the right to look at a woman’s body for an instant and immediately try and assert some kind of authority and sexual dominance. That is terrifying.
I write this not to complain, but to raise awareness. Street harassment is real. And it’s not like I can really do anything about it. Calling a guy out isn’t going to change anything. Giving them attention is what they want. As much as I hate the word, street harassment makes me a victim. So parents, teach your children, male and female, to respect and honor people as individuals. Women, don’t be silent. Street harassment is not acceptable behavior and keeping quiet only allows it to flourish. Young people, learn boundaries. Learn the difference between a genuine compliment and catcalling. And adults, for real, if you don’t have something nice to say (or a nice way of saying it), then please, just stop. Oh, and if you make t-shirts, please print one for me that says, “I’m not your baby.” Because seriously, I am not.