Harassment Editorial
Stabroek News
September 27, 2003

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Three years ago on June 11, a public misdemeanour of jaw-dropping proportions took place in Central Park in New York, USA. Hundreds of men publicly assaulted, stripped and fondled over 56 women, while thousands of men, women and children enjoyed the Puerto Rican Day parade at which scores of police officers had been deployed to maintain the peace. The mass assaults upped the already raised ire of women — especially in New York — and four days later the Street Harassment Project was relaunched.

Harassment of women is not a new issue. Nor did it begin in June 2000 in Central Park. It is not limited to New Yorkers, nor Puerto Ricans for that matter. In intemperate countries street harassment in particular tends to peak in the Summer months. This is not because, as one would assume, women cover up more in the cold months, but because the warm weather somehow pumps up the testosterone and brings out the ‘eyeballer’ — the odd idle construction worker or the more vapid punks hanging around at street corners.

However, there is no respite for women in the tropics — the Caribbean and Guyana for example — they must bear the brunt of ogling, leers, ‘catcalls’ and loud rude descriptions of their body parts thrown at them all year round. Often, in order to ensure that what he has to say is heard, a harasser will block a woman’s path. This in-the-face, unwanted attention frequently turns nasty. If the woman sidesteps to avoid a confrontation, verbal abuse could follow. How dare she think she is better than he is? If she smiles, she invites a stalker. If she dares to express anger at the affront or is witty enough to utter a sarcastic comeback the behaviour becomes menacing; a crushed ego and the line between verbal and physical harassment is crossed.

Women who are constantly faced with street harassment have been known to change their routes, style of dress, mannerisms or have found a man to walk with to avoid being targeted.

And as if that were not bad enough, attempts at verbal domination and terrorization of women, already widely practised in the home, spill over into work places. Society seems to have socialized some men to believe that women are somehow thrilled when they deliberately forget their names and substitute them with ‘my dear’ and ‘sweetheart’.

Women who think they will fare better if they blend in and become ‘one of the boys’ soon learn that there is a fee to enter this ‘hallowed’ circle. Crude comments about their bodies must be laughed at because ‘the boys’ are just joking. Of course, there will be women who genuinely find humour, or think they do, in being the object of such jokes or enjoy being ogled. This editorial cannot presume to speak for all women. Nor is it presuming to address all men.

But the fact is that harassment of women is learned behaviour. It is also a fact that harassment can lead to stalking, assault and battery and even rape. Harassment is also dehumanising and apart from being one of the worst forms of sexism can be seen as misogynistic. A way needs to be found to unlearn this behaviour so that ultimately we can all live in a society where women are free. Awareness and education are a must, but women must also support and stand up for each other. And men who find it distasteful should speak up or they will continue to be stereotyped. Silence could be interpreted as acceptance.