Street Harassment: The Basics
Street harassment falls under the larger category of sexual harassment where sexual harassment is defined by unwarranted advances and verbal harassment. It refers to cat-calling, name-calling, whistling, honking, hollering, making comments, and even extends to unwarranted physical contact in public spaces.
Countless women have been subjected to street harassment on various occasions. Be it in market places, stores, streets and basically any public area of any sort. The phenomenon is disturbing to say at the least.
It often makes women feel unsafe and makes it very difficult for them to travel or leave their homes. However, despite the disturbing and violent nature of the act, it has become normalized, to the extent that it is no longer considered questionable.
A Deeper Analysis
From a brief look at street harassment, one might find the action strange. Why would one feel the need to yell or whistle at a totally random stranger? Even if you do find them attractive, I doubt whistling at a woman will make her fall in love with you. Street harassment has very little to do with attraction though. Because if it did, it would not be such a gendered issue where 80% of women face regular harassment.
In reality, street harassment is nothing but a by-product of the patriarchy. It is often linked to and justified by the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality and a strong sense of entitlement. Whistling and catcalling is a classic example of the objectification of women.
The fact that men can get away with this persistent and public objectification says volumes about the sense of entitlement and lack of accountability related to them.
To no one’s surprise, women associate a sense of fear and insecurity regarding street harassment. Getting catcalled or touched inappropriately makes one feel as if they do not have the rights to their own body. It also makes leaving for work, school and basically simply leaving one’s house so much more difficult.
The Normalization of Street Harassment
Despite the fear women feel due to street harassment, it is not taken seriously enough. On the contrary, it is normalized if not encouraged in mainstream media and society. Many movies, songs almost romanticize street harassment.
Where the male protagonist is displayed to be chasing the heroin on the streets and somehow they end up together. What a fantastic tale to tell the kids though. How I Met Your Father: He Followed Me Around and Harassed Me on The Streets.
A classic example of the normalization of street harassment is seen in Shahid Kapoor’s ‘Phatta Poster Nikla Hero‘ movie’s song. Where, in classic Bollywood style, the hero follows the heroine around in an attempt to woo her. The idea of following someone around to pursue a romance is problematic enough but the lyrics just make it so much worse. The song reads and I quote,
”Tera peechha karoon toh tokne ka nahin”
Which roughly translates to: I will follow you, so please don’t stop me. Classic. In a society where women step out on the streets fearing their safety and their lives, movies with huge budgets and massive cultural impact send out messages like these. The actions of the hero are glorified, presenting predatory behaviour as normalized or even desirable.
Recently Pakistani actress and model Mawra Hocane came under fire for making certain comments during a talk show. The actress in her now-viral video claimed street harassment was all part of ‘Lahore eid culture’. And as if that was not bad enough she added that since Eid is for men also, it’s okay for them to harass women.
Her comments have earned a lot of negative attention, and rightly so. Her statements not only normalize street harassment but also intensify objectification.
Now, there’s a lot to break down here. Firstly, as I see it, Mawra is a victim of internalized misogyny herself. To the point where she not only thinks of herself but all women as objects of mere pleasure and enjoyment.
Her normalizing harassment is proof of how prevalent harassment culture is in our society. Where people consider it as part of a cultural experience rather than an offence.
However, her comments can be deemed inflammatory at the least. In a society with such rampant gender violence, it is inexcusable to come upon such a public platform and deem harassment as acceptable. If anything, the actress’s tone-deaf comments serve as a symbol of the prevailing class difference as well.
For women who come from privileged backgrounds, it is easier to forgo such behaviour. Not saying it makes it easier or acceptable to experience, but that it is not as threatening as it is to women from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
Women who come from less privileged backgrounds experience street harassment in a way that is significantly more threatening since it is something they are bound to face regularly. Hence, Mawra’s comments do nothing but alienate her from the struggles of women across various social backgrounds.
Why is Normalizing Street Harassment Problematic?
The normalizing of street harassment as done by the media is largely problematic. Movies and songs such as ”Phatta poster nikla hero” paint a terrible image. Viewers, especially the younger female audience are taught that harassment is an act of romance rather than aggression.
Girls should be taught to avoid their harassers not view them as potential suitors. Harassment should be shamed rather than presented as courtship. This, in turn, normalizes predatory behaviour. Romanticizes it, even. Entitlement is ingrained into young boys. And young girls are taught to accept and appreciate such an attitude.
Comments such as Mawra’s paint harassment as a casual, fun experience. Making such statements on national TV trivializes women’s experiences.
Women who have been fearful of stepping out of their homes because of this problem. Moreover, she presents street harassment as a regular experience. Which it should not be.
The whole tragedy is that it is a regular experience. And public platforms should be used to discourage such acts and stand in solidarity with other women.
Mawra claimed that ”we(women) don’t mind it”. But we do. Being harassed on the street is not equivalent to being complimented.
For most, it is a traumatic and very disturbing experience. And just because some people can take it in good fun does not mean they can speak for other women. The fact that such a thing can be labellePlanned PArenthood as a cultural experience should be tragic not appreciated.
How to Combat The Problem
In order to truly deal with such a problem, entire societal mindsets need to combated. Harassment under no circumstances is acceptable behaviour. The idea that harassment of any sort can hint to romantic advances needs to be removed.
Any person who is willing to harass someone is also willing to hurt them. Anyone who can harass another person is not a hero. Any section of the media that promotes or glorifies harassment should be highly discouraged.
Ideals of consent rather than harassment should be promoted.
The voices and concerns of victims should be given a platform. Not celebrities who are so steeped in privalege that they think they can speak for women nationwide.
Women who face harassment on the daily should be given a voice to talk about their experiences. So that problems can be highlighted and then dealt with.
Men need to be held accountable. Their unwarranted advances should not be labeled as cultural experiences. Instead, there should be consequences to their actions. The idea that women have the right to do as they please without getting harassed or assaulted needs to be encouraged.