Street Harassment: Not A Casual Gesture But A Form Of Sexual Harassment.
Growing up as a girl in Kashmir was a challenge, especially in the eighties and nineties (the pre-internet age). At a pretty early age, I could understand the fact that girls did not share the same freedom as their boy peers, and that we needed some form of protection.
During my school years, any travel was mostly done alongside my dad, or in the transportation provided by the school. I attended a convent school operated by nuns, most of whom came from Christian catholic missionaries in Ireland, England, and other parts of India. Since I lived about 20 miles from the school, I always took the school bus. The environment inside the school was pretty strict, with it being an all-girls school. Strict dress codes had to be followed, and the school community was gated with strict security precautions.
This may sound ironic, but the truth is that everyone knew and spoke of how unsafe girls were. Yet, no one ever taught us about how to actually keep ourselves safe. In the world’s most heavily militarized area, girls would often be warned about the convoys of trucks filled with heavily armed Indian soldiers doing their daily rounds. Having heard stories of kidnappings and molestation of girls at the hands of some army personnel, all we were taught was to take refuge in a store or inside a home as the convoys would pass by.
What was sad is that in the same culture, we would hum along with the Bollywood songs depicting harassment of women and girls on the streets. As a romantic gesture and an attempt to win over the heroine, the heroes of these films would be shown serenading them with some of the most catchy Bollywood songs. The lyrics, unfortunately, often reflected abusive and harassing gestures, expressions, and wording. These songs, to this day and age, are still as popular as they used to be decades ago.
No one knew that these acts in the movies, in reality, were glorifying an ill practice of harassing women and young girls on the streets, called street harassment or cat-calling.
Street harassment is a form of sexual harassment. Yet, few know what it is, and the emotional marks it leaves on the victims. The hero through these songs would call the heroine, either a “Lal Chadi”, meaning a “Red Stick”, “Nakhrewale”, or “One who shows off ”, “Patle Qamar”, meaning “one with a thin waistline”. He would often snatch her scarf, even rip her clothes, in a laughing gesture, shaking her shoulders, mess her hair, and even lift her up, on his shoulders, while the heroine was depicted to be hitting him in a flirtatious way. Sadly, the song would end with the heroine finally giving up on the hero’s constant attempts of harassment. The heroine would then laugh, and hug the hero, and then they would be portrayed to be living happily ever after.
Celebrity worship is huge to this day and age, not just in India but in countries around the globe, especially during those times in the eighties and nineties. We young folks would fantasize over these movies and songs, and we would often role-play this unhealthy interaction between the hero and the heroine as little kids.
Now looking back, the very thought of it leaves me with chills, a sense of shame, and pity for the level of ignorance we as a society had. Showbiz, media, and celebrities shape our societies in both good and bad ways and can leave a devastating impact on the mindset of young people,
Street harassment is common in every corner of the world, and unfortunately is considered a norm, a casual act, and is even confused with a mere act of showing liking for another person or being flirtatious.
What constitutes street harassment? Here are some acts which reflect street harassment. (reff:https://stopstreetharassment.org/.)
- When an uninvited stranger comes to you (of any gender, but historically it’s been males), approaches you, and makes unwanted comments, requests, and demands with the intention to harass you, show his power over you, make condescending remarks at you while you are walking on the street, waiting for the bus, in the subway or traveling in the public transport or while you are shopping, eating in a restaurant, etc.
- Making comments on your physical appearance, your body, or the clothing you are wearing.
- Continuing to talk to you after you have insisted on being left alone.
- Flashing lights at you.
- Following or stalking you.
- Intentionally invading your personal space or blocking your way.
- Persistent requests for you to disclose your name, number, or other information.
- Publicly masturbating or touching their private areas.
- Making sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic slurs, or any comments insulting or demeaning an aspect of your identity.
- Showing you pornographic images without your consent.
- Staring at you.
- Taking a photo without your consent.
- Telling you to smile.
- Whistling, or making inappropriate facial gestures.
Why do we want to raise awareness of this ill practice?
1: Firstly, for generations, many of us have been conditioned to believe that all women will have to deal with it at some point in their life, and that we should just ignore it or consider it a routine behavior that is expected in places like malls, streets or public transport. The truth of the matter is, catcalling or street harassment is a form of sexual harassment and like any other form of sexual harassment and assault, it is also about power and intimidation.
2: It leads to sexual objectification. Some catcallers will try to justify their behavior by saying that women “ask for it” by wearing provocative clothes. But these arguments involve the exercise of control and power of the perpetrator. And this victim-blaming attitude only allows the abuser to perpetrate sexual harassment. A women’s wardrobe is in no way an excuse for sexual harassment. There are countless women who get catcalled whether they are wearing shorts, dresses, sarees, or even completely clad like in many Islamic nations. In Afghanistan where women wear a burqa, which is a long robe, not even showing their eyes, women still get harassed for just being women. So clearly it has nothing to do with the way you dress up. And no woman or man or any gender, regardless of what they wear or how they look, deserves to be harassed in public.
3: There is a clear distinction between street harassment as a form of sexual harassment and not just “playful banter” or “ flirting”. Flirting assumes equality between the two parties, while catcalling involves control and a conscious attempt at showing one’s power over the victim.
4: Catcalling not only damages a victim’s psyche, it also infringes on their rights. It makes a person feel unsafe in public. Objectification of any gender, male, female, or transgender, can leave lasting and damaging effects on victims’ psychological well-being. Research has proven how it can lead to body shaming, depression, self-esteem issues, and even self-silencing behaviors in social interactions.
5: We need stricter laws against this practice. It is important to speak against it and about it. In many countries, street harassment is not even a reportable offense, so women do not take any action. Many are scared for their lives. Many feel embarrassed. And many do not even know that this is harassment.
What can we do if we become a victim of street harassment?
First, if you experience street harassment, remember that it is not your fault. Feeling safe in public spaces is a basic human right.
1: Make your safety a priority. If you are being followed on the street or feel that your physical safety is in danger, go into a local business, store, coffee shop, or apartment building lobby where the harasser may be discouraged from following you, or where you can get help from a security guard.
2: Report. If street harassment occurs outside of a business or on public transportation, you can report the behavior. Tell the bus driver, or owner of the business. Or, call your local law enforcement or local police. Some forms of street harassment, such as groping, flashing, and following, are legally recognized and reportable offenses.
3: Do what is best for you. The best thing to do if you are being harassed is whatever will make you feel most safe and comfortable. You are in no way obligated to respond to a harasser or to report them. Though responding to or reporting a harasser can be empowering, it can also be exhausting and potentially unsafe. Trust your judgment to do what feels right for you.
4: Share your experiences. If you feel comfortable doing so, talk with people in your life about street harassment when it occurs. This can not only let others know they are not alone in these experiences but can help to raise awareness of the frequency of street harassment and its harmful effects among those who haven’t experienced it.
5: Create or join support groups in your schools or your locality to share your experiences. It may not change much, but feeling that you are not alone can ease your pain a little. You can advocate together and reach out to your local authorities or community organizations to implement stricter laws against street harassment in your area.
6: If you do not feel comfortable sharing your experiences with a loved one, a family or a friend, then talk to an empathic counselor.
What if you are a bystander and witness street harassment?
There are a few ways you might help if you feel safe enough to do so.
- Ask the person being harassed if they need help. You can say something like “Are you OK?” or “Are they bothering you?”
- Please do not blame the victim. Never say, “you should not have laughed”, or “why do you wear what you wear?”.
- You can call out a harasser, but ensure you are safe as well. Tell them “What you just did is not right. That’s not OK. Stop harassing people”.
- Call out your friends. If you witness your friend harassing someone on the street, tell them to stop. Explain to them why what they did was harassment and that it is wrong.
- You can also call the local police, or law enforcement agencies if you witness someone being harassed.
To help us highlight the magnitude of this problem globally, we have created an anonymous Google survey. By filling out this confidential questionnaire, you will not only be able to share your experiences and give your voice value and meaning, but you will also join millions of other people who have been victims of street harassment and want to speak up.
Our goal is to collect data from all over the globe, and publish this as a study so that we can advocate for victims, encourage the local authorities to work towards making stricter laws on this ill practice, and ensure that every single person gets to travel safely on the streets, or in other public places.
Fill out the anonymous survey here:
To learn more about street harassment, and how to protect yourself, please go to https://stopstreetharassment.org/.
National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org y en español a rainn.org/es.
- If you or someone you know has been affected by gender-based street harassment, support is available in English and Spanish at 855.897.5910 or through online chat.
- To learn more about street harassment and for details about the sources for this page, visit Stop Street Harassment.
Bowman, Cynthia Grant (January 1993). “Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women”. Harvard Law Review. 106 (3): 517–580. doi:10.2307/1341656. ISSN 0017-811X. JSTOR 1341656.
 A Campos, Paola (1 January 2017). “Experiences of street harassment and associations with perceptions of social cohesion among women in Mexico City”. Salud Pública de México. 59 (1): 102–105. doi:10.21149/7961. PMID 28423116. Retrieved June 5, 2021.
^ Chaudoir, Stephenie R.; Quinn, Diane M. (3 March 2010). “Bystander Sexism in the Intergroup Context: The Impact of Cat-calls on Women’s Reactions Towards Men”. Sex Roles. 62 (9): 623–634. doi:10.1007/s11199-009-9735-0. S2CID 144888274.
 “Unsafe and Harassed in Public Spaces” (PDF). Stop Street Harassment. Spring 2014. Retrieved 31 October 2014.