If sexual harassment in public spaces is to stop, we need to get through to the idlers on our roads
It has been happening often and to a lot of women too. If you are lucky, it will be mildly annoying –something you can wave off with your hand but if you are not, it will turn ugly and a nasty exchange will ensue. So what am I talking about? Well, some people call it sexual harassment. I would rather call it downright disrespect to women. Women being stripped in public for “indecent” dressing are just one of the cases that will come to your mind. And no, “my dress my choice” is not what is at the top of my head today. I have had so many bad encounters with men who have tried to sexually harass me in public. I have a feeling that there is no need to go into details here because this is a story that is so common for women; from touts trying to touch your arm and/or back to random men practically stretching their hands out to touch you on the road. The first time this happened, I thought I had imagined it.
With these experiences in mind, when I got the chance to speak at the BBC Global Questions late last year, I knew exactly what question I was going to pose to the commendable panel. “How can we get men to respect women?” It was a whole two paragraphs but that was my question basically. I do not remember getting an answer although one of the panelists (a lady justice) later spoke about having stronger laws that would protect women against such harassment in public spaces.
About a month ago, a friend and I were walking into a certain building when suddenly; the guard manning the building started hurling insults at my friend because her skirt was too short (according to this guard). I was perturbed.
“I thought we already had this conversation about men respecting women,” I said to my friend (who had, coincidentally, attended the BBC Global Questions forum with me) later on while on the lift. And her response woke me up.
“Nope, we haven’t had these conversations with these people,” she said as we got off the lift.
Why is it so impossible to change idlers (including beggars) who think that they own our bodies simply because we are female and they are male?
I think I might have an idea of why nothing seems to change and perhaps until something is done in these areas, then we will continue complaining about the same problem; year in and year out.
a) We minister to the converted
When I look back, all the meetings I have attended with the theme of respecting women have only converted men on the guest list as well as the attendance register.
What do I mean by converted? I mean that the men we invite to these forums are the ones who already know that it is wrong to try to touch a woman on the road. The real culprits, the idlers on the road, never get to attend those high profile conferences and seminars, so yes, even if you talk about how to deal with this harassment, you have no hope of delivering the information right to where it is needed because your audience is not in attendance.
While working on this article, I spoke to my BFF and what she said did not give me hope. Her argument is that, even if you wrote a whole public policy advisory on why these men should stop subtle-threatening the lives of women, chances are that they will never read that advisory. If you broadcasted a program on TV and had it highlight this issue as seriously as it should be addressed, chances are that the men who will take interest in such a program are the men who already know about the need to respect women but those idlers, the ones we need on board, will never pay attention to that program.
So is this a completely hopeless situation? I think not, however, there is need to change the tact with which these issues are addressed if they are to actually reach the target audience and cause the positive change that we yearn for.
b) We need to build knowledge of why women need respect
Not too long ago, I was walking to the house at around 10 pm. There were many people on the road – as usual— then suddenly, a half drunk man staggered to where I was. I moved away. Then he said something about me not being outside the house at that hour if I was not a prostitute. In other words, I should have let him come to where I was and perhaps hug me because being out of the house at that hour automatically meant that I was a prostitute or open to those kinds of advances from men. I wondered for a second if he was a prostitute too because he was out of the house at that hour. Then I also wondered if all the hundreds of people walking on the road were prostitutes, not to mention the numerous people that were still stuck in traffic on the adjacent main road.
That experience made me think that perhaps we have so many ill-informed men walking around our roads and perhaps bombarding them with information about why women should be respected just does not help. There is need first of all to put these men in a rehabilitation institute of sorts, drain their misconceptions and then after that, think about pumping new information about respect for women to the cleaned-up heads. The man who tried to pull stunts on me was in a clean suit by the way and would ordinarily pass for an ambitious corporate with eyes on the corner office. Wait, was he even drunk? Why didn’t he stagger towards the nearest man or the other elderly woman? Looks like he had a soft target namely me.
c) Address the fundamental reasons that bring forth these behaviours in men
The culture of seeing women as “second-class citizens” seems to have remained deeply ingrained in a large population of men today and since it is difficult to counter culture through legislation, there is need for a more social-cultural approach (more research here). There is a time a street kid tried to make passes at me. He said some very nasty words to me which I will not bother writing down because my editor will chop them off before they can see the light of day. Yes, truth is stranger than fiction. I would have perhaps understood that love is blind had this kid looked older than 14. But I think that is a manifestation of the kind of reality this young boy is exposed to and perhaps breaking wrong beliefs is an important place to start in the destruction of the “spell”.
d) Please, defend yourself woman!
Just because they do not have brains and are idlers on the road and they have been smoking glue all their lives or they are drunk does not give them permission to lay their filthy, stinking dirty hands on you. Move away, hit those hands or just take off. Tell them to back off with a firm tone. It is hard enough to be a woman in this city and double tragedy if you are 22! One more tip, you can do make up and heels if you want to inspire respect because these idlers have a way of respecting older-looking women. But no, this is an escapist approach. We need to be respected in our own rights.
I have a persistent thirst to know things and that has pushed me to read a lot of books and ask questions including stopping strangers on the road to ask them questions about the inspiration behind their hairstyles… Apart from the madness, I am generally a very bubbly, reasonable and energetic person.