31 October 2016

Why We Still Need Feminism - Cat-calling and Street Harassment

 This post is going to be a little different to the others I aim to pen for this blog as it will discuss something which happened to me this week which made me both extremely upset and angry at society, and motivated to promote the need for feminism, even in 2016. 

When people ask: "Are you a feminist?", there's often a slightly awkwardly pause before answering in the affirmative. In recent years, the term 'feminist' has seemingly become taboo and the meaning extremely confused and obscured. With many people associating 'feminist' with radical feminism, man-hating, and a women's superiority movement, it can be quite frustrating for people (I feel it's important to stress that I believe that men can be feminists too) who, despite what Tumblr and Twitter may say, merely take feminism to mean something as radical as 'women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes'. This is, unfortunately, only the first barrier feminists have come to expect. One question constantly asked is: "But you have equality, women can get the same jobs as men now, why is feminism still even relevant?" 

This blog post will outline one of my own recent experiences and use this as a basis for proving that, even in 2016, feminism is definitely still relevent

One evening recently, I'd just finished a hard gym session and was not looking forward to the 25 minute walk home in the rain. With my jumper hood up I decided that I'd forego listening to music and just hurry on home to relax, walking at a moderately fast pace. As someone who is intrigued by human behaviour and interaction - a product of a sociology degree, I decided to watch how people negotiated the space on the pavement whilst rushing home from work. Unsurprisingly, almost everybody on the busy pavement was walking whilst staring at the floor or at their mobile phones, shunning all contact with their fellow commuters. Consequently, I was therefore rather surprised when two men in front of me turned and stared straight at me, strange behaviour which broke the unspoken norm of ignoring strangers. 

What happened next was also unexpected as these two men attempted to start a dialogue with me. "Hey, you're really pretty, you know," the first guy says. Given my state of tiredness, and the content of the man's statement to me - a focus on my aesthetics, I ignore him, frowned, and walked on staring straight ahead of me. 
Thinking that my ignoring them would be the end of all interaction, I did not expect the following. The second man, who until this point had only laughed along with his friend, decided it was time to join in: "What you ignorin' us for, bitch?" was his delightful contribution. I'm shocked, surely ignoring the first point of contact suggests a reluctance to be drawn into further interaction? 
Now feeling slightly intimidated and threatened by these two men and their unwelcome/unwanted advances I decide to employ an avoidance tactic: I sped up my walking pace, despite my tired legs' reluctance, and overtook both these two men and another group of students ahead of them. Walking at a very fast pace I begin to relax a little until I reach a crossing and have to stop to wait for a car to let me cross the road. Before I get to the other side, however, the two men overtake me, jogging. 
I'm now feeling very intimidated, scared and anxious as to what might take place next. Yes it is a busy time of day with the pavements full of commuters but still the worry is there. As it is the two men turn to stare back at me in a sexually-charged manner, laughing and making suggestive comments to each other. 
At this point I'm frantically planning another route home to my flat in my head to try and escape them - what if they follow me home? The 'what if' questions fill my head. I'm cursing myself for leaving my mobile phone in the bag on my back meaning I can't call a friend to act as a safe-guard, just in case. 
Thankfully, they decide they've had enough of their 'game' and decide that I'm boring by not entertaining their conversation and advances and stop at a bus-stop. 
I breathe a sigh of relief at the next set of traffic lights. I'm still on-edge though. 
All the way home I check over my shoulder to make sure they're not there. I eye every other person on the street with caution and worry.  

This is why we need feminism. Because this is not a one-off. Because I know for sure from other female friends that I am not the first or the last woman that will experience this. 
In cases like this, when we try to make men understand just why cat-calling and street harassment is wrong, we often resort to personalising the situation - 'How would you feel if this happened to you sister/girlfriend/mother/female friend?' But, in reality, we should not we feel the need to do this when really all we need to be asking is: "How would you feel if this happened to another human being?"? 
Am I any less of a person than your mother or sister or girlfriend? Is it acceptable, because we're not acquainted, for me to fall victim of this kind of harassment? 

If things had become more serious and physical in this situation I am quite sure that I could have probably defended myself, but what about more vulnerable people? What about a disabled woman who can't speed up her walking pace to get away? Or a homeless woman who doesn't have a home to escape to and has no choice about living on the streets? It could have been a lot more serious. 

A study by the campaign group 'Stop Street Harassment' found that, from a survey of 811 female respondents, 99% had experienced some form of street harassment. I'm certain that if you ask any female friend whether they have been cat-called or harassed in an outdoor public place, they will answer affirmatively. 

The mantra of "Don't talk to strangers" was a life-lesson most of us in the UK had drilled into us from the moment we could comprehend its meaning. A wariness of strangers is something that children internalise from a young age in most Western cultures. So, when a strange man (excluding charity representatives, advertisers and the homeless for whom engaging with strangers is normalised and expected) tries to engage you in conversation on the street, it is a very uncomfortable and intimidating situation. 

Even in 2016, therefore, some men still find it acceptable to comment publicly on a woman's looks in an unwanted manner as they pass by her on the street. Women, whilst no longer being passive and mute ‘objects’, are still seen as sexual objects who must satisfy the 'male gaze' (Mulvey, 1975). Rosalind Gill (2003) goes further arguing that, in contemporary Western cultures, women now actually ‘pay good money’ for products which contribute to their own self-subjectification.

For example, look at this t-shirt below:


Women are encouraged to spend money from their still-paid-less-than-men jobs on this T-shirt purely to appeal to men and to entertain the male gaze.

 But would those men’s comments be justified in any way had they been made whilst I was wearing that t-shirt? No. No matter what a woman is wearing, no matter what time of day, no matter where she is walking, under absolutely no circumstances is there ever an excuse for a man to harass a woman. The fact that some men still think that catcalling is an acceptable way to treat any woman proves that feminism is still relevant and that we need to be educating boys from a young age that this is a serious issue. Boys will not be boys if we change the way boys are socialised.