I teach at an area college, and on my way to class recently I noticed four men standing on the corner talking. I could tell that they had spotted me coming and began to turn their attention away from one other to watch me.
"Here we go," I thought as I passed them. I could feel my body stiffen and my jaw tighten. "Hey, mama, where you going?" one of them shouted at me. I kept walking.
"Hey, mama, you can't talk to us?" he shouted again.
I stopped, turned around and shouted back, "I'm a mom, just not yours, so stop harassing me!" They laughed and kept shouting. I ignored them and continued to campus to teach my class.
I'm raising awareness about street harassment because I am a mother and a social justice activist committed to ending violence against women. I grew up in New York City during the '80s, when women couldn't walk down the street without being verbally, and sometimes physically, accosted. The attention usually ranged from cat-calls and jeering—ogling men thought nothing of whistling at women like they would at a dog—but sometimes escalated to threatening behavior.
One day, I was followed several blocks by a man shouting sexual obscenities at me because I had ignored his unsolicited whistling. He eventually wandered off, but not before completely humiliating me. I remember feeling absolutely terrified and ashamed, not solely because of his actions but also because no one intervened on my behalf.
As a teenager, I never felt empowered to stand up to the harassment. Instead, I learned to smile and pretend to like it, to hope and pray that being friendly didn't encourage or invite more. For the most part it worked. After sufficiently pressuring me into smiling back at them, the harassers usually left me alone and moved on to accost other unfortunate women.
These experiences left me feeling violated and on guard, and they also forced me to change the way that I moved through the world, even to this day. I learned to avoid certain routes, taking the "long way home"—even when it was inconvenient—or to ride in taxis to avoid walking in certain areas.
The worst part was feeling completely objectified and violated by men who treated me as if I didn't have the right to say no. Yet I was lucky. Around the world, street harassment is one of the most common forms of gender-based violence, but women are offered absolutely no protection legally or otherwise. Very few places have laws that protect women from street harassment, and if they do offer legal protection, it is rarely, if ever, enforced.
Women throughout the world, in places such as Afghanistan and India, have been attacked by men with acid and disfigured or killed simply because they had the courage to stand up to street harassment and say no.
Despite the fact that street harassment is extremely common, it still receives little to no attention. Raising awareness is the first step. Still, we won't end gender-based violence until we can see how we slowly nurture violence every time we allow women to be harassed on the street or treated as if they don't have the right to say no.
The older I get, the less tolerance I have for men who harass women on the street. You will usually find me shouting right back. I have a 21-year-old daughter, and I want her to be safe. Unfortunately, I know she's not, in a world that tolerates this predatory behavior.