“Heyyyyyy LILLY!!”

Street Harassment and why it’s not trivial.

It is 3am, there is no moon, and the street is dark and deserted.

Suddenly you hear steps behind you, and a voice from the blackness hisses “Awww sabiha!” [Hey Beautiful!] in a snide and suggestively sexual way.

You look behind you and see the shadow of a big man. Your heart starts to thump, you are certain you don’t know him and he makes you feel uncomfortable, so you increase your pace.

“Ma tridx kliem? Ejja naqra hdejja. Ahh, x’bicca ta’ gisem ghandek. Ejja l’hawn Lilly!”

[“Don’t you want to speak to me? Come nearer. Wow what a piece of booty. Come here Lilly.]

You don’t look back again and increase your pace even more. Thankfully, your car is near. You get in and drive away before the guy comes any closer, relieved that nothing else happened.

Were you overreacting? Who knows? The fact remains that in the best possible scenario, an unknown person scared you for no good reason, apart from his enjoyment of making you feel uncomfortable. Imagine if there had been two or more guys following you and cat-calling in the dark, instead of just the one.

Has this ever happened to you? I’m sure something like it, at least once in every woman’s life, has. It could have been a mere whistle, a cat-call, some sordid comment about your body, a vulgar gesture, or even a grab at your butt. Be honest – how did it make you feel? Did it make you feel pleased or threatened? Complimented or belittled?

What is defined as ‘street harassment’ is any action or comment between strangers in a public place that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and / or harassing and is motivated by gender. In countries such as India and Bangladesh, it is also called “eve teasing.” It can range from honks, sexually-explicit comments, flashing, stalking, to more illegal acts, such as public masturbation, assault and rape.

Gender-based harassment can also intersect with racism, homophobia and transphobia. However, while street harassment targeting alternate sexualities is recognised as being unacceptable, harassment of women motivated by gender and sexism is not.

Storm in a teacup? After all, a woman should feel pleased if a man compliments her and shows her he finds her attractive right? And if she dresses like a slut, she is actually asking for it and deserves everything she gets, right? WRONG.

Street harassment is a human rights issue because it limits women’s ability to be in public as often or as comfortably as most men. It has nothing at all to do with sex, just as most cases of rape have very little to do with sex, as it is mostly based on the need to control and threaten someone and make them feel vulnerable and helpless.

Street harassment is a type of bullying, where people tend to blame the woman for its occurrence, according to how she is dressed. Another common comment is also, ‘What was a young woman doing alone outside at that time of night, anyways? What did she expect?’

Why on earth should a woman feel uncomfortable outside at any time of day or night? The bottom line is that women should have the right to move around the city without having to experience unsolicited sexual language from men. But, for hundreds of years, this hasn’t been the case and is sometimes even regarded as socially acceptable – by men, very likely!

In fact, women walking alone through 19th century cities were viewed as morally corrupt and not part of the respectable domestic caste. For all but the lowest classes of society, women could be fined, arrested or forced to prove that they were not prostitutes simply for walking unaccompanied through a city. One would think that sort of mentality had changed in this day and age right?

Street harassment is not a joke, it is not a compliment and it is not a trivial annoyance. It is an issue as it limits people’s rights to freedom and security, and it is therefore a human rights violation. It presents the threat of rape as being always present in a woman’s life, simply because she is walking unaccompanied in a public space. It perpetrates the idea that a woman’s body is there for display, and that every man has the right to analyse, comment and appraise it. It is a power that is used to intimidate and dehumanise someone, reducing them to the state of a side of beef.

This doesn’t mean the end of compliments. It doesn’t mean you can’t flirt, or be attracted to a stranger, or to make a polite approach and strike up a conversation. Those are all completely different things from commentary about your body that is directed at you, not to you, the dehumanised discussion of your body parts by a group of passers-by, not caring that you can hear, or a scream of “sexy” or “slut” or “pussy”. Those aren’t compliments. They’re something else. I believe that the vast majority of people know the difference. It is an issue which needs more awareness. The ideology that harassing a stranger in public by commenting on their body is a compliment, has got to stop.

As decreed by the United Nations General Assembly, 25th November is the ‘International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women,’ and its aim is to raise awareness of the gender discrimination, not to mention violence and abuse which still threatens women in today’s society. It is there to remind us that everyone has the right to be respected, regardless of their gender, appearance or the clothes they are wearing.