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Let's End Street Harassment: Hollaback! Montreal

Posted by Christine / May 31, 2013

20130531-Hollaback!.jpg Spotting the newly filled Bixi station near my apartment, I layered a pair of bicycle shorts under my skirt and took a bike out for the day. The first was an older man. "Hey, did you dress yourself today? Mmm, I like the way you dress yourself, sweetie." I simply stared ahead and waited for the traffic light to turn green. It was an uncomfortable eternity. Later, I rode past a group of men in their 20's who hooted and hollered at me. One of them said excitedly, "I saw under your skirt!" I wanted to whip around and say something to the effect of, "I'm wearing shorts, you idiot." But, I didn't. It always seems easier to ignore it. On the last stretch of my bike ride another young man suggestively asked me "for a ride."

I wondered if it was my fault. If I should avoid riding bikes with a skirt on, even though I always wear shorts under. And, why do I feel the need to justify myself and what I'm wearing? Always asking what I could do better? Afterall, I well know that street harassment happens year-round, whether I'm wearing a dress or a parka. One of the most frightening times I was harassed occurred while wearing a red winter coat. I was walking home at night and was followed by two men who howled at me and asked, "Where are you going so fast, Little Red Riding Hood?" I threw out the coat the first chance I got, as though that would stop it from happening again.

For years I wondered why no one would have a real dialogue about street harassment. I'd been anything from whistled at to groped on the street, and I wanted to talk about it. But, there didn't seem to be anything available beyond casual conversation, which was usually limited to me being told I was overreacting, that street harassment poses no real threat. It's a compliment. It means I'm desirable. The women who commiserated with me would shrug and accept it as a part of their daily lives. I began shrugging along with them.

Finally, I came across blogs like Jezebel and organizations like TED, which addressed street harassment and broadly, gender and feminist issues. My perspective changed. I stopped seeing the harassment as background noise and began thinking critically about why it was happening.

So, let me be clear: street harassment is not about being attractive, because it is not a compliment. It is and always will be about gender-based power dynamics. A harasser feels powerful in their assumption that they are able to intimidate or make their victim feel uncomfortable. This reinforces their perceived superiority and dominance. Harassing is thus a ritual of self-satisfaction.

This is also not to say that strangers should not approach one another. One of my most positive experiences of being approached by a stranger was when it was pouring out and a gentleman wordlessly tilted his umbrella my direction, which I promptly stood under. Other positive experiences include being told I have a pretty smile or that I look nice. Every person also has the right to deny or ignore a stranger's approach, polite as it may be, if they are not interested. Again, street harassment, and what distinguishes it from other comments, is all in the intention. It's about pointing out the difference between a benign comment like, "Sorry to bother you, but I noticed the book you're reading and I also really enjoyed _________ by the same author" and the less benign, "Nice ass."

Now, there is actually a global movement that seeks to end street harassment. It's called Hollaback! Hollaback! uses a Web platform that enables people to share their stories while offering support. As I mentioned, victims are made to feel they are overreacting, so while it should be absurdly self-evident, the first step is validating their negative feelings about street harassment. The website also allows people to use their smart phones to document and map their experiences. In a sense, this 'captures' the harasser and holds them accountable, on a social level at least.

While there are legislative guidelines for dealing with sexual harassment in the home or at one's workplace, there is no such approach for street harassment. This generates feelings of helplessness among its victims. Long-term effects of street harassment include anything from anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder.

"One thing that we definitely don't want to do is to criminalize harassers, as that is not a real solution," said Kira, who works for the Montreal chapter. "Instead, we aim to develop community-based approaches to the problem, to prevent it from happening in the first place through education, rather than to involve police or have more people wind up in the prison system."

Hollaback! Montreal was founded in December 2011 by Kira, Nadia, and Mélodie, along with two other site leaders who have since left to pursue other endeavors. Hollaback! was originally founded in 2005 in New York city. Since then, chapters have sprung up in over 50 cities and 20 countries around the world.

Over the past year, Hollaback! has organized: nine rallies/marches, 18 discussion groups, 12 film screenings, 16 workshops, 13 awareness-raising parties, two flash mobs, two art shows, and 17 site leaders have meet with 94 elected officials. In 2013, they hope to expand Hollaback! to over 25 additional cities, ideally bringing their total to 100.

"A great way to support Hollaback! is to get involved in ending street harassment in whatever way you feel suits you best," said Kira. "It can be as simple as sharing your story on our site or through the app, having a conversation with people in your life about street harassment, participating in our events or other local feminist events, or getting creative by postering or sidewalk chalking anti-harassment messages in your neighbourhood, etc."

Hollaback! Montreal is volunteer-run and receives no funding. The main Hollaback! in NYC has become a non-profit and they accept donations. You can donate through any Hollaback! site using the "Donate" button.

What's next for Hollaback!?

"We want to link up with other feminist groups in the city to conduct a survey on street harassment, so that we have more information and know where to focus our energy for the future," said Kira. "Several Hollaback! sites in other cities have recently launched very successful PSA-type campaigns to combat sexual harassment in their respective public transit systems, and this is something we're interested in as well. Anecdotally, we know that a lot of harassment happens in public transit, so we'd like to gather some statistical data to back that up."

More information can be found at Hollaback! Montreal's website.

Visit their facebook page here.

Image is from Hollaback! Montreal's facebook page.

Discussion

10 Comments

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