On my drive into the office this morning, I glanced to my left and saw two men talking on the sidewalk. A young woman walked past them. The two men stopped talking and turned to watch her walk away. One leered and nodded a debasing comment in her direction, staring at her bum. She kept walking, head held high, defiantly retorting his comment. This happened within mere seconds – only the time it took for my car to pass a small stretch of sidewalk.
I don’t know her but I’ll bet that seemingly harmless encounter dampened that woman’s morning considerably. I’m also betting it’s not the first time she’s been objectified by a stranger on a walk through town.
Harassment has become such a normalized part of culture that most people are unable to recognize it for what it is: abuse. Verbal, sexual, psychological, even physical abuse. Excuses for this abusive behavior vary: “take it as a compliment” or “don’t flatter yourself” or “she was asking for it” or, the more subtle, “Men have a right to women’s bodies“.
Thankfully, many people are saying, “Enough is enough” and measures to combat harassment are being made. Online movements like Hollaback!, Stop Street Harassment, Everyday Sexism, and others are giving voice to the fear, anger, and insult women (and men) have experienced.
Artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh introduced her own movement and took it to the streets:
(Q) Your work starts from the issue of street harassment, yet the tone of the phrases you choose point to the fact that women don’t need to be sensible to men’s needs. They do not need to appease or seem agreeable to anyone, both on the street and in personal relationships.
(A) That’s especially true for the “smile” comment. That piece in particular has received a lot of backlash. A lot of people don’t understand why women would have a scowl or a neutral facial expression. Women are looked at as needing to have this kind of emotional response, to always be happy, always be nice, and caring, and pretty, and lovely. You have to be dainty and poised and have a pleasant demeanor. It is put on us as our responsibility. Many people feel entitled to women’s emotions or expressions, particularly in the public space. Men often tell a woman to smile or initiate a conversation with a woman without her wanting to respond. She doesn’t owe you anything; she can move around the world however she wants to without having to feel like she has some responsibility to give something to someone else, to a stranger. While that definitely happens on the street, these posters and their sayings can shift into a lot of other contexts and situations ( from “Hey Stranger“, linked above).
Until the idea that a woman is her own person (and therefore, not subject to the whims of men or the society at large) is no longer a radical concept, artwork like Tatyana’s is a must.
Whether it’s a stranger commanding you to look happier or your boyfriend telling you, “You need to smile when we’re in public…people will think you’re not happy to be with me” it’s abuse and you don’t deserve it.