The danger that lurks on every street

To those of you who follow The Scarlet religiously, you may have read an article on street harassment. This article took the stance that while street harassment is a problematic phenomenon, symptomatic of a broader social predilection, “real issues” exist which should absorb the attention of the feminist movement. The fundamental contradiction notwithstanding, to de-problematize street harassment in such a cavalier manner and to frame it in a context of freedom of speech stands to normalize such abuse and undo the years of progress that the feminist movement and allies have achieved till this point. For a more comprehensive response to said article, I suggest you refer to the opinion piece published by The Scarlet the week after.

This post is not in response to the ideas posited by the article on The Scarlet. Rather, this is a series of musings that developed over countless conversations that I have had with friends – those who are continually at the receiving end of this unchecked abuse. I launch into this article with a disclaimer, that as a cis male I cannot ever claim to fully understand street harassment. Male privilege entitles me to be shielded from this violence. Even if I have observed it countless times, I have not directly experienced harassment and therefore cannot (and do not) posture as the voice of authority on this matter. Women are born into a world of fear, socialized at a young age to fear strangers, hide their bodies, come home before dark, the list goes on and on. They are taught to fear, mistrust and be hyper-vigilant at all times. Street harassment both engenders and exacerbates this fear psychosis. I cannot even begin to comprehend the adrenaline rush, the tumble of thoughts, and the panic that my sisters, my mother and my female friends experience when they are preyed upon by the perpetrators of street harassment. If the objectification, the need to subjugate and the unsolicited propositioning of women is not serious enough, street harassment spawns a gamut of other issues. For instance, consider the default reactions to being rejected or ignored by the victims of street harassment. They generally involve comments on body image or promiscuity, thus perpetrating fat shaming and slut shaming. The end result is women being verbally abused in every way imaginable. Throw in some physical harassment (e.g. stalking, invasion of personal space) and the end result is the rights of women left battered, broken and reduced to pile of rubble. I fail to see how the sheer inability of sects of society to treat others with dignity and respect can be minimized, negated and deemed unproblematic.

After undergoing an eight hour training on sexual violence prevention, one of the learnings that is ingrained in my mind is that when behaviors such as street harassment are normalized, a culture of impunity is created—one that supports extreme forms of abuse (think rape). While codified law and institutions exist to prevent and punish physical abuse, who is charged with the burden of policing far more pervasive conditions such as the daily harassment that women experience out on the streets? It stands to reason that society bears this responsibility. Yet when society has failed to improve the lot of women, what recourse exists? This is why I support the criminalization of street harassment on principle. Society tends to other harassers, forcing the mask of the socially undesirable on them using prejudice and bias. Yet, it is important to note that perpetrators of street harassment transcend racial, economic and other social boundaries. For instance, one of my friends spoke of how she was heckled by a group of men in a car only to be told later on that she had nothing to fear as they are all Clarkies. In my opinion, this is all the more reason to be afraid, to acknowledge the reality that abusive mindsets exist within what we believe to be as egalitarian a space as Clark. While I do not wish to imply that all men are complicit in perpetrating street harassment, blame cannot be ascribed to particular race, socio-economic status or other demographic.

As a man – who is partially blind to this culture of abuse as any woman I am with is left alone as she is perceived to be “taken” – I cannot comprehend the complexities, the intensity, and the lingering fear of being at the receiving end of such violence. What I can do is let the experts speak, allow women to legislate for themselves, and check my privilege. I hope you do too.

– Themal Ellawala

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