Photo Credit: Hollaback!
Debjani Roy, 36, of Manhattan, is the deputy director of Hollaback! For over a decade, Roy has been an advocate for women’s rights and equality, both in the U.S. and the U.K. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in gender and cultural studies.
By JONETTA BADILLO
Q. What is your definition of street sexual harassment?
A. They are a number of definitions. The official one that we use is unwanted sexual nature targeting people for their sexual gender identity. This sits on a spectrum of actions. It can start with something like verbal harassment, or luring, but can escalate to following, stalking, or obstructing someone’s path. Then it can escalate even further to things like groping, touching, brushing, then public exposure and masturbation. So acts like that are meant to target people based on their gender identity or expression. It’s based on the power imbalance where the person who’s doing the harassing is feeling like that public space is their space and that we’re just inhabiting that space. And therefore, they have the right to do whatever they want. But it happens on the street, around schools, around workplaces, and also on the subways, buses and other forms of public transportation. It’s not happening necessarily in a space that has policies centered around it. It’s something that happens in more open spaces.
Q. How common is street harassment really?
A. It is the most prevalent form of gender-based violence globally. It’s not well documented in terms of statistics and number, but if you look at the numbers of stories that have shared on our website since we started it’s over 5,000 stories. There are other projects around the world that are documenting stories and also mapping stories like Harass Map in Egypt, Everyday Sexism in the U.K. I heard yesterday that Everyday Sexism has about 50,000 stories. So it’s a very common problem, but it is the most under or unreported form of gender-based violence because it’s only recently that it’s been recognized as a form of gender based violence, and it hasn’t really been considered part of the spectrum. It’s something that’s been normalized, and we’ve been taught to accept and/or ignore. So we’re still in the phase of identifying it as a problem, and we’re doing that through the blogging platform and story sharing. It’s a global problem.
Q. Around what time period did the street harassment become an issue talked about in the news?
A. I would say in the last 10 years maybe. Street harassment has existed forever. But the term itself, if you look at Goggle analytics and look at the timeline, I think it’s 2005, when Holla Back started, you all noticed the rise in the term street harassment being used in media through searches. Up until today, you can see the spikes in conversations around street harassment. There were many initiatives in the last century where people were organizing around the issue through things like the anti flirting club. So it was identified as a problem, but the ways in which it was addressed was very different.
Domestic violence was addressed in the 70s, and there was a whole system that was created around responding to it. There was a lot of advocacy happening on the grounds, shelters starting opening. Work place harassment was a big issue of the 80s and a system was put in place to respond to that. So that’s happening right now around street harassment, in the very early stages of that. While there were efforts made prior to raise awareness, there wasn’t a whole systematic response around street harassment.
Q. Why do you think street harassment is so prevalent?
A. There are different expectations placed upon us based on what we’re born into sex wise and we’re assigned gender roles and are asked to perform these roles throughout our lives. It’s a big part of that dynamic, between gender identity and gender performance. It’s an issue of power. Traditionally women have not inhabited public spaces at least in the western world. It wasn’t until late modernity, that they started going out into the arcades and into public shopping areas unaccompanied. That was the first sort of safe time that women were allowed to inhabit public spaces in the west. In other parts of the world, like in Jordan for example, women have been historically accompanied in public spaces whether they were to run errands, go to the grocery store, to the bank, wherever. It’s very recent that women are going out on their own. So what’s happening when women who have been historically confined to private spaces inhabit public spaces, which are usually the domain of men and has been seen by owned by men, men feel they have the right to objectify them and comment on them. It’s kind of like an effort to remind women that the space is not theirs, that the streets are not theirs. There was also an issue in late modernity where you were either an affluent woman shopping in the arcade or if you were in public space you were considered a prostitute. So it’s the dichotomy of the ways in which women inhabit public space.
Q. What about people of the LGBTQI community? They’re also often victims of street harassment.
A. That’s quite a different issue. That’s very much based on homophobia and hate. For straight gendered women, it’s a little bit in terms of how they experience harassment.. Street harassment is very much part of the greater issue of gender inequality and discrimination violence.
The issue with transwomen of color, especially in high profile cases like Islan Nettles, is it started with verbal comments. And then when it was realized that she was transwoman, it turned into whole thing of hate and fear. It made this very quick switch. It’s the whole questioning of ‘what are you?’ in terms of gender and sexuality that takes place, or that moment of realization on the harasser’s point. There’s constant questioning of that person’s identity and it comes from a place of hate and obviously homophobia. I think many transwomen of color are in a position of constant fear when walking down the street.
Q. Has your organization ever FOIA request to the NYPD to find out how many sexual harassment incidents against women and LGBTQI occur yearly? Why or why not?
A. No, we don’t work with police officers. We use community engagement, community based problem solving. We gather our own statistics. Our main goal is to create a space for people to share their stories. We’ve done a lot of mapping, surveying certain locales and talking at schools. We’re using this tool to identify this problem. There’s a wealth of data on our platform. Some other sites have done surveys on a more local level. The stories shared are used as a rich source of data to prove harassment is a problem. Hard numbers are just one way.
Q. On your site, it says street harassment is under-researched. Is it also underreported? Why?
A. I think a lot of people don’t know what it is. It’s so common. Some feminists don’t see it as an important issue as domestic violence, or sexual assault. What has to be done is everyone has to agree that it’s just as important. When it’s permitted, allowed and tolerated, it increases the threshold for all other forms of violence. It’s a systematic issue.
It’s something people only talk about with their friends. We don’t have to take this anymore. No more normalizing. We’re expecting a cultural change to take place.
Q. Have you ever been harassed on the street?
A. I have.
Q. What was it like? Where did it occur?
A. My story is I was born in England. My parents are Indian. I’ve lived in three countries, on three continents, and have harassed in all three. I experienced the worse street harassment in London.
The most recent incident occurred on way to work, on the 2/3 train on way to Brooklyn. There was a guy across from me in the subway car. He unfolded the free paper and was fumbling with his zipper. He was clear what he was trying to do. I was surprised, scared and shocked. I tried to get the attention of other people around me, but no one noticed. He was talking to himself, seemed agitated. I took a photo of him discreetly. He seemed like he was successful (in masturbating). I was hesitant to say anything to him in the enclosed space.
Not everyone takes street harassment as seriously as I do. It made me feel a whole lot better to report it on the Holla Back site. I did not report it to the police. A whole other issue I faced after posting it online was that people were pressuring me to go to the police. I didn’t want to deal with the questioning, and laughing. I received solidarity from the community.
Q. What are some of the feelings of women/ LGBT on street harassment?
A. Seems like everyone has a story. I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology in Chelsea to do a training. The majority of the students are women of color. I asked if anyone had ever been harassed on the street in the beginning of the class and one or two students raised their hands, giggling.
At the end of the class, I asked the same question and everyone raised their hand. Everyone knows what they’ve experienced, there’s just never been a forum for people to voice that. And it does affect us.
That moment in the high school training was most memorable to me.
Q. Do they feel that sites like hollaback! and stop street harassment have helped to stop the problem?
A. It takes all of us to raise awareness about this. The power is really in all the people who shared their stories, but by doing it it’s being broadcast to millions of people. It’s about changing those numbers. These forums and spaces have shifted our understanding of what street harassment is and our acceptability.
Q. Why did you decide to become part of the HollaBack! ?
A. I’ve been working in gender-based violence for 10 years, but also more than that as an advocate. Learning that gender-based violence is so common, how it shapes who we are, and how we perform in the workplace and in the classroom shifted my movement. It shaped my identity in many ways. It does really impact how we see ourselves and what we become and who we can be.
Q. Why is this movement so important now?
A. It’s something that needed to be addressed. It was the right timing with all the blogging platforms, and social media. We do all our trainings online. It wouldn’t have been possible with technology.This is why the movement has grown so fast.
Q. Do you feel the necessary attention would be given to this issue if the movement had not started? Explain
A. No. It went from being a non-issue; something not recognized to something front and center. Site leaders around the world are really doing the important grassroots of the work. We had a rally with 15 cosponsors last year. This year we had 40 cosponsors. The newly elected public advocate came to rally this year too.
Q. Do you think advocates in countries have a tougher time fighting street harassment? Which ones, and how so?
A. Each site has its own set of barriers. It varies location to location, and depends on how accessible legislators are. There are diff climates in different places. The objective isn’t only to change the law, but change the culture.
Mainstream media portrays certain locations as being worse than other. I’ve had my worst experiences in London. It happens everywhere. It’s a different set of challenges, and consequences. A lot of efforts are being made in India too.
Q. Your smart phone app that tracks and maps street harassment, has it work as intended?
A. People have used it to share their stories, and we’ve been doing trainings in the districts where we’re funded. The mapping helps us understand where street harassment is taking place and what it looks like. The new iteration of the app allows people to forward the information to their city council members. There are no links to law enforcement.