A friend and I were walking down the road in front of her house, when we noticed a group of young men standing nearby. As we walked past them, one of them uttered gibberish loud enough to be heard. Before I could work myself up to righteous anger, my friend had already turned around to shout back in a loud fierce voice, “Do you live around here?” Of the five men, one could easily tell which one had catcalled. The look of victory on his face faded at lightning speed – and was replaced with a cocktail of fear and surprise. “What are you doing here?” was the next thing she asked. “Nothing, what... why” was the only murmur he could manage.
How Women Give it Back
One of the many acidic quotes in Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex addresses a distinct feature that interprets the ‘male ego’ thus:
“No one is more arrogant towards women, more aggressive or scornful, than the man who is anxious about his virility.”
This virility evidently becoming the source of violence needs to be publicly confronted. The reasons for not doing so, however, are fairly valid for women. Almost every woman I talked to touched upon the key aspect of precaution. It is pivotal to assess the surroundings in order to make sure the warring doesn’t get them into further trouble. Still, a minority of them engages in blunt confrontations with men on the streets.
Mayra from San Mateo, CAI love calling them out! If it’s a car passing by that honks, I flip them off. If it’s a guy on the street I usually say ‘what the f*** are you looking at?’ I am very confrontational when it comes to a guy making me uncomfortable.
These are the women who make it a point to let the perpetrator know exactly how they feel – either by staring back or by confrontational body language – until the perpetrator shifts his gaze.
Vaishnavi, a filmmaker from Chennai, India, does this too:
Depending on how severe the harassment is, my response ranges from staring back right into their eyes to flinging my footwear. I think it is important to call out what’s wrong, otherwise it would be perceived to be right owing to lack of dissent.
My female friends – who live in various countries across the world – have always voiced their exasperation of being ogled on the streets. However, race, caste and class seem to have played an important role of differentiation. The experiences of lower class women – or women of colour – are different from their privileged counterparts. Black/Latino women tend to face the brunt far worse than their white peers in the West, for instance – their confrontations aren’t taken as seriously, even by law.
Veronica N Cuyugan, author of Become Your Own BlissI’m Filipino. As someone who is neither Latino nor Black I will say that the harassment I’ve received comes from a wide spectrum of ethnicities. Yes, White privilege touches upon a sense of entitlement. Walking down the streets in Orlando, Miami or NYC, I get catcalled and I scream back.
In India, race also includes caste as a sub-category – making the ability to confront street harassment more of a privileged woman’s act. Incidents of a lower caste woman calling out a groper can result in the most brutal of consequences.
Fight, Flight, Freeze Responses
Absence of a feminist upbringing is an active reason for women choosing to ignore verbal harassers. Most conservative families fed certain responses into the current young adult generation when they were growing up:
Sharada, Physician, New DelhiAs a kid we were told that if a guy ogles at you, it’s only because you look nice. I used to be confused as to whether I should be ashamed or exultant. Nowadays, my MO is to stand my ground, stare back and shout. It makes me shiver and sweat – not because I’m scared but because I am conditioned to not make a scene.
The shivering and sweating belongs to the first stage of stress-reaction under the renowned phenomenon of fight, flight, freeze. At the other end, the response of men after being called out also translates into a ‘freeze’ reaction – but for a different reason. In a “conventional set-up”, it is unexpected for women to react over “small issues” such as catcalling, gazing and even anonymous touching in public transport vehicles. A sudden and loud acknowledgement of harassment shakes an ego that has been years in the building – an ego that believes it is acceptable to commit such acts. When objection to this acceptance is registered by the woman, the ego breaks like a disturbed army of ants that either causes the man to flee, get offended or respond hastily as if he has been accused of murder.
But women alone aren’t supposed to cure this plague. Patriarchy was created by and for men; needless to say, that they are equally a victim. But they also have the power to mould it.
Mary, policy analyst, San Diego, CAI think harassment (and sexual violence) on the street is as much a man’s problem to solve as white supremacy is a problem for white people to solve – meaning, these groups need to be held accountable to stop oppressing other classes of people.
Why Women Need to Respond
Much has been written on the damage but not on the effects of defying harassment. A review paper published in 1995 analysed the then collected data on coping strategies adopted by victims. While 44% of women asked the harassers to stop, it was discovered during the review that most women choose not to do anything about harassment as they believe it will be useless from a legal and social perspective.
But time and the worldwide feminist struggle have brought remarkable changes in the global perception of sexual harassment – and they appear to encourage women to adopt confrontational measures instead of denial.
It’s a victory for the confidence gap.
Sadaf, a clinical psychologist based in MumbaiIn a poststructuralist perspective, if women confront the male harasser, it brings the man to notice – as well as helping the woman’s confidence.
Sadaf also emphasised the advantage of more women responding to harassment for the sake of abolishing victim blaming arguments.
Smruthi, another psychologist said,
Referring to Pavlov, I think that a united negative response will condition harassers into associating yelling women with catcalling and will dissuade them in the future.
For women, talking about harassment falls under an unusual social stigma, irrespective of the inherent wrongness of the act. But confronting it, like the women above, demolishes that prejudice.
It is a moment of groundbreaking joy when the offender gets caught in the parallel paradigm of resistance where the woman is looking right back at him – breaking his belief that he could get away with it.
Apps like hollaback in the US, safecity in India, harasstracker in Lebanon and protibadi in Bangladesh have proven to be very effective – but a sudden burst of anger from a woman fed up with misogyny can truly unsettle the status quo on the streets.
(Prateek is a student of psychology and a feminist-activist. He considers himself purposeless in comparison to the vastness of the cosmos, but also thinks that if we have the biological privilege to exist and understand things, why shouldn’t we live better?)