Q&A with Holly Kearl, editor of Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Spaces Safe and Welcoming for Women

“I used to pass by this one particular corner to get to the bus stop. There were young men who’d hang out on the corner and make all kinds of comments to women who passed by. I admit to changing bus stops in order to avoid them.” This is one of the daily cases of harassment collected in  Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women (Praeger Publishers, 2010), a book editied and compiled by writer Holly Kearl.

Using an informal survey, Kearl collected more that 1,000 accounts of street harrasment on the original blog.

Al-Masry Al-Youm asked Kearl about the book, her own experiences, and her focus on Egypt and collaboration with the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR).

Al-Masry Al-Youm: Your book deals with street harassment on a global level, but what did your research uncover about the issue in Egypt?

Holly Kearl: In chapter four of my book I write about the global scope of the problem of street harassment. In addition to looking at overarching patterns–like the commonality of harassment on public transportation–I profiled three countries: Egypt, Italy and Japan. The “Safe Street for All” campaign by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights was one of four anti-street harassment campaigns I featured (the other three were in Mauritius, New York City and Chicago).

From what I’ve read from people studying public sexual harassment in Egypt, it seems the problem is believed to be pervasive because there are many young men without jobs who can’t afford to marry and are taking out their frustrations on women in the streets. And, like many countries, many men are upset that now women can go to work and school and are their competition, and so they want to show women that the streets are still male territory by intimidating them and making them feel unwelcome.

My understanding is that street harassment was rarely discussed or acknowledged as a social problem until the last few years [in Egypt]. But with the attacks on women during religious holidays, the ECWR report, the prosecution of the first street harasser, and the attention members of parliament are paying to it, people are discussing it. To me, all of those factors seem like an indication that a social shift is starting. I hope momentum will continue so that the shift can truly happen.

Right now, no country has gender equity or full women’s rights and I believe that is a big reason why street harassment is a global problem.

Al-Masry: How can we combat street harassment?

Kearl: Educating young men about healthy definitions of masculinity is one of the most important suggestions. Too often, being masculine means being aggressive, powerful, violent, and being with a lot of women (in some countries more than others) and treating them like objects. Masculinity also means demonizing people who have feminine characteristics, whether they’re being exhibited by men or women, and directly contributes to gay bashing and gender patrolling among boys and men. Teaching boys that it’s not okay to be violent and that it’s okay to be nice, and you are still a boy or you are still a man (and not “gay” or “girly”), is essential.

Men Can Stop Rape has programs at US middle and high schools and colleges that focus on healthy definitions of masculinity and the International Center for Research on Women has a program called Parivartan in India. We need more groups like them.

We need street harassment to be taken seriously and not portrayed as a compliment or as the woman’s fault. It seems like that shift has been occurring in Egypt since the campaign of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, and I think Egypt is ahead of a lot of countries, including the US, in taking it seriously. I can tell you that the US government isn’t doing anything about this issue and the Egyptian government is, from issuing PSAs warning men that harassment is bad for tourism, to distributing anti-sexual harassment books to mosques, to working on strengthening anti-sexual harassment legislation.

I also think it’s very important to empower women, especially young women, to know that the harassment is not their fault and that they don’t have to just accept it. Men expect us to do nothing so it’s easy for them to harass us. While it is a man’s responsibility to stop harassing women, responding or reporting is something women can do in the meantime to help that happen.

Al-Masry: According to your book, many women tend not to support other women who speak out if harassed, implying that in some way (the style of dress, etc) they deserve it. Why is this?

Kearl: This is a very important point. I think a lot of women want to believe that if they dress a certain way, they will be safe from harassment and so they look at women who are harassed and try to figure out why it happened so they can avoid it themselves. It’s safer for them to blame women because blaming men can bring men’s anger on them.

The truth is, clothing doesn’t stop harassment. A 2008 study by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights showed that 83 percent of women experienced street harassment and wearing a veil didn’t make a difference. Men do not harass women because of what they wear, but because they want to bully, intimidate or insult women.

Al-Masry: There have been many campaigns in the Arab world to encourage women to wear the hijab. One Egyptian campaign compared women to lollipops and men to flies, suggesting women cover themselves in order to not attract male attention. What is your opinion about this attitude?

Kearl: I strongly disagree with this type of victim-blaming, but it is pervasive, and not just in Egypt. In India, a group called Blank Noise has an “I Never Ask for It” campaign and they are collecting the articles of clothing women were wearing when they were harassed to show that women are harassed no matter what they wear and that it is not their fault.

This focus on blaming the women in such an illogical way takes the pressure off the men who harass and leaves them blameless. It excuses their behavior. And in Egypt, it’s especially laughable that people are saying women must be covered or else they’ll be harassed because I’ve read many accounts of men groping women while they were wearing hijabs, including at religious sites. Again, blaming women instead of men makes it so men can continue to harass women without consequence.

Al-Masry: How can women protect themselves?

Kearl: I believe women should have the same right to public spaces as men and so I do not want them to have to limit their lives because of harassment. I think it’s important for women to take self-defense classes and learn assertive verbal responses they can use when men harass them. Various studies show that having an assertive response does more to end the problem overall than simply trying to avoid it or ignore it and it’s more empowering and less damaging to a woman’s self-esteem.

Al-Masry: In Egypt, and the world over, is sexual harassment on the rise, or is there hope?

Kearl: I’m not sure if the problem is getting better or worse. It’s more intense now because more and more women are in public spaces and as populations increase, they are more likely to encounter strangers who can get away with harassing them. I hope that in a few years the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights will do a follow-up study to their 2008 report to see if the amount of harassment that women endure has gone down because of all of the campaigning against street harassment in Egypt these last few years.

Al-Masry: Why should a man be interested in reading your book?

I really hope men will read my book. Women’s experiences and viewpoints on street harassment are usually invisible to men and this book can help them understand the problem with statistics and stories. Every man cares about at least one woman, whether that is his mother, sister, grandmother, aunt, daughter, cousin, female friend, or female significant other. If they can realize that this issue impacts even the women they care about, then I think they will be more likely not to harass other women and to intervene when they see men harassing women.  

There is a chapter in my book specifically for men that talks about what men can do to not be harassers–how to talk to women in public places in a non-threatening and non-demeaning way. There is also information for them about how to be allies in ending this problem. There are bystander tips and suggestions from men I surveyed about how to stop your friends or men you see from harassing women.

Ultimately, street harassment will not end unless men help end it.

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