Demeaning and destructive

On Monday last, the BBC reported on a shocking incident of assault, the video of which had already gone viral. It occurred in France the previous week, and involved a student, Ms Marie Laguerre, who was viciously slapped by a man after she vocalised her disgust at being verbally harassed by him. It all went down outside a café in north-east Paris and was captured on the eatery’s closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras. It was also witnessed by several people sitting at tables outside the coffee shop, typical of Paris at this time of the year.

According to the report, the man had frequently made obscene and degrading comments and “noises with sexual connotations” to Ms Laguerre as she passed by. She had grown angry and told him “shut up” not imagining that he would even hear her. But he did and retaliated by grabbing an ashtray and throwing it at her. She had dared to not be flattered by his attention, so obviously she had to be punished.

The article further said that the man and Ms Laguerre traded insults after the ashtray missed hitting her and he then walked around to where she was standing and slapped her hard, full in the face. In the CCTV video, viewers can see the impact of the blow causing her to stagger.

Also striking was the fact that no one observing the incident went to the aid of Ms Laguerre. Some of the café’s patrons could be seen remonstrating with the man, but there was no attempt to accost or arrest him nor did anyone check on Ms Laguerre’s well-being. She later told the BBC that her first instinct was to go home, but she later went back to the café, got the video and witnesses and made a police report. The man was later arrested.

This incident of the global street harassment pandemic turned violent is neither the first nor only one of its kind. But because it has had the benefit of exposure—by Monday this week it had been viewed more than one million times—it has heightened awareness of this vile behaviour mainly by men and mostly directed at women and girls, but increasingly at members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community.

According to StopStreetHarassment.com, street harassment includes unwanted whistling; leering; sexist, homophobic or transphobic slurs; persistent requests for someone’s name, number or destination after that person has said no; sexual names, comments and demands; following; flashing; groping and/or sexual assault.

In many countries, Guyana included, street harassment is deemed harmless and shrugged off as being part of the culture. But the despicable, unwanted and unwarranted cat-calling and harassment of women, girls and LGBTQ people is most certainly not a manifestation of human intellectual achievement. 

In fact, Hollaback, a global people-powered movement aimed at ending street harassment, conducted a survey in collaboration with Cornell University, which found that 85% of people under 40 years old have taken a different route home to avoid street harassment, 72% have taken a different mode of transportation and 70% had decided against going to a social event like a party or a movie because of potential street harassment. In addition, 66% of people said they had changed the way they dressed or changed an outfit, so they would not get harassed and 35% had moved or quit jobs because of the high number of street harassers in their neighbourhood or work area.

Back in 2015, in an effort to help address the larger issue of out-of-control violence in Guyana, the Witness Project, a local arts-based group, launched a campaign using visuals and an online forum to capture attention and encourage conversation on street harassment. The group used the title ‘It’s Not A Compliment’ drawing attention to the lie some men perpetrate to get away with street harassment. The campaign utilised huge posters, which were displayed in businesses and public places, featuring women and girls reacting to catcalls and its volunteers also handed out flyers and engaged the public in discussions.

There was a good response to the campaign and though it has ended posters are still displayed in some places today. But there is still much work to be done. Just last month, in a letter to this newspaper, a Ms Andrea S C King had cause to decry the content of an instructional video done by Tagman Media for the Ministry of Public Infrastructure to educate road users on the correct way to utilise the new Kitty roundabout. The video, as described by Ms King, displayed in animated form a minibus (obviously male) verbally harassing a car (obviously female). From the description, the video seemed to subscribe to what is known as typical minibus culture and Ms King correctly noted that it displayed a degree of insensitivity that was a slap in the face of women.

In truth, such content should not even have been considered. If the Ministry of Public Infrastructure and by association the government really had women’s best interest at heart, Tagman Media would have been sent back to the drawing board when it had submitted drivel of that sort to be used for educational purposes. Shame on the creator of the content and whoever signed off on it. Nothing about it is even remotely funny especially when research has proven that street harassment can have detrimental psychological effects on the harassed. It has and can result in self-objectification, depression and anxiety among other things.

And like the incident in France and several others have proven, it can lead to violence including rape.  

What street harassment is for certain, is a blatant symbolisation of patriarchy; the quintessence of male privilege that has no place in a modern world. Because regardless of how much we seem to have evolved, any society in which men feel they have the right to make catcalls and unwanted and sexualised comments at strange passing women still has work to do. And no matter how many glass ceilings women have shattered, they will still feel unequal if when they walk out of the boardroom there are men on the street, who choose to address them using demeaning descriptions of their anatomy. 

More education, particularly of men, needs to take place and maybe the government could consider starting with the Ministry of Public Infrastructure.

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