Power on the streets: Why street harassment IS a big deal

Women mini-skirt Mumbai street

Street harassment has been a fact of my life, from the subways of New York City to the streets of Mumbai. Men rubbing up from behind on a crowded train, where it’s impossible to get space. Looking my body up and down on the street. Telling me that I’m “looking gooooood” as they walk by.

Honestly, I stopped thinking of it as anything special or out of the ordinary. You could say that I was actually lucky enough that nothing really traumatic ever happened—instead, it was just an irritating, sometimes gross (like those old men masturbating behind newspapers), but generally unremarkable part of daily life.

When I heard that this week was designated Anti-street Harassment Week, I have to confess that, inwardly, I rolled my eyes. Another week, another cause. More tweeting and temporary outrage. To what end?

But the more I read about it—articles that are coming out, different people’s stories, yes, even the tweets—the more I realized how important this is. Not because we can solve this issue in a week (or even a year). But because it calls it like it is. Street harassment isn’t just a common inconvenience. It’s a daily expression of dominant power.

In India, we call it “eve teasing” or “ched chad.” These phrases make harassment sound totally innocuous, like a form of light play. In New York, if I told some ogling, commenting passerby to mind his own business, I was told to “lighten up” or to “not have an attitude”—after all, they were just paying me a compliment. And so often, this is the excuse, right? That it’s a compliment. That we should be happy for the attention.

When a harasser looks at, comments on, or touches your body, it’s an invasion of your space, plain and simple.

What these excuses so completely ignore is the power dynamic at play. When a harasser looks at, comments on, or touches your body, it’s an invasion of your space, plain and simple. It’s a denial of your right to control your own body, in the most public way possible. It’s a way—intentionally or not—of reminding you that you are not, in fact, the arbiter of your own boundaries, physical or emotional. Instead, the harasser’s actions, however “innocent” or violent, fleeting or prolonged, remind you that your sovereignty is always an illusion, that it can always be perforated.

I’m not suggesting that we all walk around in little plastic bubbles with blinders on. In fact, I’m not sure I really have any concrete proposals at all. I know that as I’ve gotten older and become a more assured, confident woman that I’ve attracted less unwanted attention. I know that when I get frustrated and snap, “What are you looking at? Kya dekhnelayak hai?,” I’ve sometimes been satisfied by the quick turning away of the head. But I just as often feel dirty and upset—my own reaction is still part of the power dynamic. My own stability has still been shaken.

Acknowledgement of each other and communication with mutual respect. That’s what I want. How do we achieve that? I’m not sure. For now, I’m really appreciating the focus on street harassment that this designated week affords. We can share our stories. We can intervene on behalf of others.

Street harassment is an attempt to remind us “who is really in charge”

And we can remember that street harassment—in whatever guise, under whatever name—ek choti baat nahin hai. Instead, it’s an insidious power play, an attempt to remind us of “who is really in charge,” which manifests on a daily basis in the most quotidian aspects of our lives.

(What if we reversed this dynamic? This video is a hilarious vision of what might happen if women were the catcallers!)