The catcalls mainly consisted of harmless proclamations of love or joking marriage proposals. But my female classmates and I never knew when one of those instances would turn into a grope and run.
Anytime a group of girls ventured into the city without a male companion, we would be subjected to non-stop commentary from men on the street. As soon as we had a man in our company, it stopped completely. With four times as many females than males in the study abroad, male companions were precious assets.
It was difficult for our male classmates to understand how ubiquitous this catcalling was, since it didn’t happen at all when they were with us. That’s one of the most difficult aspects of this problem; those who are most empowered to do something about it are least aware of its severity.
This harassment is certainly not limited to the Middle East or any one area. While researching street harassment for the WomanStats premier mobility scale, my fellow coders and I found that there were only one or two countries in which street harassment was NOT a common occurrence. Street harassment is a severe problem worldwide and serves to limit a woman’s agency and sense of safety.
The discussion—and even defense— of street harassment is loaded with irony and contradictions. The more harmless catcalls are rebranded as “compliments” for which women should be grateful. But these compliments are nowhere to be found when that woman has a male companion. This is because the harassers have more respect for a man’s claim to a woman than a woman’s claim to peace and safety.
Another aspect of hypocrisy in this area is depicted in the claim that women who are less covered up are asking for this street-side commentary. Some countries take this to the extreme by using public stripping in an attempt to shame women into dressing more modestly.
Street harassment impedes any kind of social mobility. If a woman fears being harassed and possibly harmed when she ventures into public, all of her choices become restricted. She becomes limited to going into public only during the daytime,only in extremely safe areas or when escorted by a male. These kind of restrictions limit her autonomy and all aspects of her social mobility, including career choices and advancement.
Many view these mobility restrictions as just an innate part of being a woman, but the culture surrounding street harassment can change. If we are serious in our efforts to empower women to pursue any path in life, then we need to ensure the safety of her physical path. Public spaces should be safe areas for both men and women. No one should be imprisoned by fear.