“Ya amar, ya amar.”
When I was a teenager, I used to love hearing those words — which mean something like “hey, gorgeous” in Arabic — hissed and whispered at me by men on the street in Cairo, where I spent my summers. I never got that kind of attention in suburban Southern California, where I grew up. But at the Genena Mall in Medinat Nasr on the outskirts of the city, dressed in low-slung jeans and a short-sleeve shirt, I felt like the most beautiful girl in the world.
That feeling didn’t last long. A few years later, I was walking along the beach at night with my guy cousin Ramy near our family’s summer flat in the El-Agamy neighborhood in Alexandria, when a group of street boys started following us — then ambushed us. They pushed Ramy aside and grabbed at me, taunted me for wearing shorts, then ran away, laughing. I was frightened and humiliated. Though the incident lasted less than 30 seconds, it felt like forever.
I never liked hearing “ya amar” again.
Egypt isn’t the only country where men and boys harass women in the streets and in public spaces. It happens in every country in the world, says Holly Kearl, executive director for advocacy group Stop Street Harassment and author of Stop Global Street Harassment: Growing Activism Around the World.
“The only difference is the volume, how often it happens and how extreme,” Kearl says. While there’s not much data on this topic, a Gallup survey of 143 countries from 2011 showed that worldwide, 72 percent of men said that they feel safe walking alone at night in their own communities, compared to 62 percent of women — with the greatest disparity in wealthier countries.
So I wanted to know: How are girls and women treated by men in different countries? What must women do to protect themselves? To find the answers, Kearl connected me to a group of women activists who shared accounts from their countries.
Some of the stories were horrific — one woman in South Africa says that some men forcibly remove women’s clothing in the street. That happened to a Mexican journalist in March as well. Others were simply shameful: Even one woman’s grandmother was subjected to lewd comments.
Kearl thinks social media has helped women open up about street harassment. “People have been able to share their stories very publicly and that has had a snowball effect,” she says. “As they share their stories, others do, too — and they realize they’re not alone.”
This month, Kearl and these women will be coming together and coordinating a series of global events to raise awareness against street harassment. These interviews have been edited and for clarity and length.
Afghanistan: “Walking in groups rarely prevents harassment”
On a daily basis I hear sexually explicit comments [from men in the streets] as do most women. You would think a conservative Muslim nation would be against making sexual comments to strangers, but men feel justified to invite women to have sex with them, talk about women’s bodies and call women “whores” simply because women are in public. However, because talking about sexual things is so taboo, we keep quiet. We know that if we speak we will be blamed and silenced.
I was about 12 when, one day on my way to school, two men on a motorcycle asked me if I had bled from my vagina yet. I didn’t know anything about my period, and I was so shocked that they used the word “vagina.” I had never heard it from men before. Following their question they laughed and drove away. I was so embarrassed I ran all the way home.
Walking in groups rarely prevents harassment. Wearing conservative clothes doesn’t help. In Kabul, I have seen women in blue burqas get harassed as much as women in jeans. The problem is not at all in what women wear, but men’s feeling of entitlement to women’s bodies and public spaces.
Noorjahan Akbar, 24, founder of gender equality and social justice blog Free Women Writers
The Bahamas: “Women give fake phone numbers when asked”
Men in the Bahamas frequently objectify women in the streets with leers, verbal harassment and by following them. When women do not respond favorably to the harassment, the men often hurl insults in an attempt to embarrass them. They make kissing noises, call women by the color of their skin — like “red,” “yellow” and “dark and lovely” — or comparable food items — like mangoes. An offender will even grab a woman’s arms and pull her toward him.
Women generally ignore street harassment, accepting it as a part of their daily lives. Some women choose to change their routes, travel in groups, adjust their wardrobes to cover their bodies more, politely reject their come-ons, and give fake phone numbers when asked. Generally, they try to avoid confrontation and, when approached, try to be as agreeable as possible.
Alicia Wallace, 29, organizer for Hollaback Bahamas
India: “A growing trend is pictures being taken on mobile phones”
Women and girls are constantly stared at, groped in crowded spaces and on public transportation, catcalled, whistled and commented on regularly. A growing trend is pictures being taken on mobile phones without permission by strangers. Women and girls, through experience, either avoid certain areas, do not stay out late, limit their movements in public or wear loose clothing.
Public spaces should be safe and accessible to all, especially women and girls. It is crucial and essential if we want them to fully participate in society and the economy. If not, then choices and movements are restricted — and that in turn has a negative impact on society.
ElsaMarie D’Silva, 42, founder and managing director of Safecity
Japan: “To battle street harassment, Japanese women travel in groups, carry buzzers or take self-defense classes.”
The most common types of harassment are inappropriate touching in trains, taking pictures up a woman’s skirt, flashing on the streets, stalking and “chikan crimes” [chikan means “stupid man” in Japanese and is used to describe men who grope women in public places]. Pick-up artists in bar areas are known to stop lone women or small groups of women to ask if they’ll “have a cup of tea” with them. To battle street harassment, Japanese women travel in groups, carry buzzers to deter harassers or take self-defense classes. Or they may stay home after dark.
Kasumi Hirokawa, 24, public relations representative, Japan
Nepal: “Things are changing slowly”
Things are changing slowly, but still men treat women on the street as if they are someone at their disposal to flirt with, fondle, tease, grope, pinch, spank, whistle at, stare at. In some areas, men show their penis. [To protect ourselves, women] cover their bodies, put a shawl over their breast area and do not mingle with boys openly. [Women should be treated like] any other normal human being who can walk freely without any fear of being harassed. Let the world be her world as well.
Mona Sherpa, 34, development worker, Nepal
South Africa: “We are a fierce and independent lot”
[Women are treated] pretty poorly. If you are a lesbian you will be subjected to all manner of name-calling and insults. We have had a few high-profile public strippings, which are attempts [by men] to shame women into wearing more modest clothes [by forcibly removing their clothes in public]. These have all been strongly rebuffed by women. We are a fierce and independent lot, despite what outsiders think. There is a huge pushback when men try to do these things these days. Women are fed up.
Sisonke Msimang, 42, writer, South Africa
Yemen: “My grandmother complains about street harassment”
I once tried to wear different outfits, from a veil that covers up everything to just a headscarf. I was still being harassed. It was surprising that it actually increased into physical pinching when I wore the most conservative dress code. Age also makes no difference. My grandmother complains about street harassment.
The only time I don’t get harassed is if I’m walking with a husband or brother, etc. That deters the cat-calling and touching, but it does not necessarily stop the long stares. It’s demeaning that a woman only earns respect in the streets if she has a male figure around her.
Rasha Jarhum, women’s rights advocate, Yemen
What’s your story?
How do men and boys treat women in public in your country? Tell us in a comment below, or tweet it to the writer at @MalakaGharib.