THE reality of street harassment against women who are traveling dawned on me some years ago in Rabat, Morocco, when my wife rushed back into our hotel room looking uncharacteristically shaken. She had ventured out alone on an errand, and had been accosted on a street near the Kasbah by a group of men, several of whom barked and made lewd comments, one of whom exposed himself. In broad daylight.
Actually, you may already know this story, if you’re a woman who travels by herself. Mostly, around the world, even in exotic locales, street life is serene and manageable. Sometimes, though, women see a very different street than men see.
There have been horrific stories in recent years of violent sexual assaults on women who are traveling, and there is no need to reprise them here. Physical assaults are at one extreme on the scale of street harassment, but the scale also encompasses grades of sexually oriented assault, including groping and verbal abuse. Increasingly, social networks, often organized by young women, are working together around the world to share stories and encourage organized action against street harassment of all sorts.
To one degree or another, it occurs just about everywhere. “I moved to New York City when I was 18, and being harassed on the street was a part of daily life for a young woman,” said Emily May, the co-founder and executive director of one of the most wide-ranging of the international groups addressing street harassment, Hollaback (ihollaback.org).
“I knew it was not O.K., but I really just thought that this is what women have to deal with if they want to live in the city, that there is nothing you can do to change it. But female friends and I began having conversations with male friends who were shocked to hear our stories. One guy looked at me and said, ‘You live in a different New York City than I do.’ And I was like, ‘What’s up with that? Why do I live in a different New York City?’ ”
In 2005, when she was 24, Ms. May and six friends, three of them male, started Hollaback, which has since ridden an international wave of digitally organized reaction against street harassment around the world. From its modest beginnings in New York, Hollaback says it now has affiliates in 62 cities in 25 countries, working in 12 languages.
It is managed by a staff of three full-time employees, including Ms. May, operating on a shoestring budget out of an office at the Y.W.C.A. in Downtown Brooklyn. Around the world, there are now 300 organizers who have all been trained by the group, mostly through extensive webinars. Ms. May said Hollaback trained them “to pair storytelling with on-the-ground action” to expand public awareness of street harassment.
Right now, Ms. May said, two of the major hubs for organized action against street harassment are Egypt and India, countries where some of the most notorious street sexual assaults against women have occurred in recent years. In Egypt, a separate group called HarassMap tracks in real time reports of street harassment that women can make anonymously using mobile technology. HarassMap, in Arabic and English, also provides links for assistance and education. In 2012, Egypt toughened laws against sexual street harassment, including groping and catcalls, but in general “they are not enforced,” HarassMap says, while often, the victim who reports harassment is blamed.
In India, “street harassment is an everyday reality for women,” said Rubina Singh, the director of the Hollaback chapter in Chandigarh. “Comments, staring, stalking, groping and much more are pretty much expected to be experienced by a woman traveling here.” Partly because of online story-sharing and networking that bring sharper narrative focus to the issues, however, police have become more cognizant of street harassment against women, she said.
“There is also a change in the general attitude of the public,” she added. “It’s easier to talk about street harassment now than it was last year.” Like others in the organized initiatives against street harassment, Ms. Singh noted that it occurred everywhere, even in places where street life was not especially bustling. While visiting Los Angeles, she said, “I’ve had my share of comments and catcalls.”
In coordinating with international organizers and training new ones, Ms. May added, “we’re always on Skype and Google hangouts to meet regularly with everyone. It’s a robust online community — they all talk amongst each other to try to facilitate a cross-cultural collaboration.
“Just yesterday I was on the phone with our team in Croatia, and they had noticed that our team in Baltimore was doing this really great ‘take back the bar’ campaign, for training people who worked in bars to be able to respond when they saw harassment happening. And Croatia was like: ‘Yeah, we see the same issues. We want to bring that here.’ ”