Recently Sudeeksha Bhati, a 19-year-old girl from India, died in a road accident. Her family alleged that she fell off the motorbike, after her relative who was riding it, braked to avoid two men on a bike, who were harassing her. Sudeeksha Bhati was an intelligent girl, who had a full scholarship to study at a prestigious college in the USA. Her case has ignited a global discussion about street harassment. Many other cases linked to street harassment have resurfaced, such as Ruth George in Chicago, who was killed after ignoring a catcall. They all bring up a very pertinent question. Are girls and women safe on the streets?
Street Harassment is a worldwide problem. In the UK, 63% of women feel unsafe in public spaces. In the USA, 84% of females have been catcalled before the age of 17 and in Dehli, India, 89% of women have been harassed while travelling in the city. The normalisation of street harassment has also contributed to its prominence today. Girls and women have been laughed at when they recall their stories about street harassment and are told to take it as a compliment. But is being catcalled inappropriately, or stared at uncomfortably, and even feeling unsafe in your own city, a compliment? Street harassment roots to a larger issue in our society today. The toxic culture wherein girls and women have to change aspects of their lives (forcefully or not) to avoid discomfort caused by men, whilst men’s behaviour is chalked up to “boys being boys”.
I spoke to Ratna Gill, a millennial woman, who lived in New York for a few years. New York is known for it’s ruthless catcalling. Ratna told me that “The male gaze feels heavy on me. There's a certain way men look at you that makes the hair on your back stand up and immediately makes you feel unsafe. It's probably that very power men feel they have over you that gives them a rush from catcalling. I think the solution is to stop sexualizing women's bodies and looking at them as commodities open to men's commentary, gaze, and catcalls.” Ratna’s statement is reflective of the emotions and thoughts of many other women and girls today.
Beenish Shaykh, who was born and raised in India and later moved to London, also spoke to me about her experiences with street harassment in India and in London. She recalled an incident in where she was harassed. “When I was in India, there was a time where I was walking down the road and somebody tried to grope me from behind and I said no and I tried to push him and he still tried to come on to me and I’m like no and I kept saying no, but I realised he’s not even understanding what no means, because for him it’s not an answer to his action”. Beenish reflected on how important consent is for her, and how a no means no. She spoke to me about an incident she faced in London, where she was at a pub and someone came to her and tried to chat with her, and she said “thanks” clearly uninterested. “I wasn’t talking to the person, the guy didn’t understand, he didn’t touch me, but he wasn’t able to get the clue that I was not interested”. Beenish wondered why in both places it’s so hard for people to understand that no means no. She also spoke to me about how as a Muslim, Brown woman there is a level of fear she feels in both London and India, for her safety whilst on the street.
Lastly, I spoke to Saachi Gupta, a teenage activist from Mumbai, India. Saachi recalled her first time when she faced street harassment. “When I was going to see a friend of mine, and I was wearing these boxer shorts and my Ed Sheeran Hoodie and I was travelling by BST bus, I was super excited because I was going to see this person after a long time. Then, I saw this old man staring at my butt, like very obviously and I was like I must be imagining this but then he kept staring and then he smiled at me and it was kind of really scary and I always thought I would stand up for myself in a situation like this but I couldn’t because I kept thinking if I told someone like the conductor or the lady next to me, they’d all be like you’re wearing shorts so it’s your fault and they wouldn’t behave like it was a thing. He (the old man) indicated to me to come and sit in front of him in a way that made me very uncomfortable and I still get chills when I think of that.” Saachi’s experience further reflects the narrative where girls and women fear that they will be blamed for the actions of men because their shorts were too short or somehow it was their fault that they felt uncomfortable.
Saachi also explained that it was hard to stand up for herself in situations like those, because people may turn it on you. She also explained that catcalling and street harassment are not compliments for women and girls because of the clear difference in power dynamics in society. “If a man who is considered more powerful in society catcalls a woman or a cisgender man catcalls a trans person, that is harassment because it’s not a way to appreciate them or how they look, its a way of establishing your power and showing this person that you know you have this power and you know you can do whatever you want with it.”
Street harassment is a monster with many different faces and affects the lives of different people, differently. It has become so common across societies today, that women and girls may feel unsafe in their own neighbourhoods. The underlying factor in what all these powerful ladies above spoke about, is that street harassment is not a compliment. It invokes a sense of helplessness, discomfort, and fear, which can stay with a girl or woman forever. It’s imperative that as a society, we stop viewing women as objects to stare at or catcall, but human beings.