Today is Women’s Equality Day, a time not only to celebrate the gains we have for which our foremothers fought, but also a time to reflect on all of the areas where women continue to lack equality, including in public spaces.
Men who harass and assault women in public spaces – consciously or unconsciously – disrespect women. Their actions exhibit their belief that they have the right to interrupt women’s privacy, demand their attention, and sexualize, insult, humiliate, and hurt them whenever they want. These men generally do not care how their actions make women feel at the time nor do men on a whole understand or care about the many ways the fear or experience of harassment and assault limits women’s movement and feelings of comfort in public spaces.
Women are approached and harassed by men in all contexts, including when they are: commuting to work and school, on business trips and sightseeing in new places, doing errands or going to the club, and as they walk their dog or exercise. They are harassed by men when they are on foot, in a car, riding public transportation, waiting for public transportation, and even as they garden or stand in their own front yard. They are never completely free from the chance that someone will harass them, no matter their age, sexual orientation, race, class, or body type.
Women protest in Egypt. Image from International Museum of Women
In lieu of laws or societal outrage and action over this sad reality, women take it upon themselves to try to stay safe, and in the process, often end up curtailing their public lives and access to public spaces. For example, some women avoid going in public places alone and many avoid going alone after dark or in an unfamiliar area to avoid assault. This may mean they miss out on night classes, working extra shifts, or attending networking events.
Other ways women alter their lives to try to avoid being harassed include: taking alternate routes to their destination, mixing up their routine so they do not become predictable, paying for a taxi or driving a car rather than walking or relying on public transportation, wearing baggier and less flattering clothing, and wearing specific facial expressions (assertive, scowling).
To avoid upsetting men who relentlessly get in their space, women may pretend they have boyfriends or husbands (even if they are lesbian), make up fake phone numbers, turn up their ipod, and pretend to talk on the phone.
Women constantly have to be prepared for men to approach them in public and they instantly have to decide how to respond: will they ignore them, will they stand up to them, or will they try to humor and appease them. All options have risks and a woman is never assured that she will be completely safe. This reality is a huge setback in the trajectory toward gender equality.
All over the country and world, there are activists speaking out against and working to end gender-based harassment and assault in public spaces. Their voices are strong and their actions laudable, but they are few in number. We need more activists and, most importantly, we need a widespread, coordinated, and concerted effort to end street harassment.
We must all do our part to make sure women and girls are safe and welcome in public spaces, and one day when they are (I’ll be an idealistic dreamer for a moment), only then will we be able to say women have made great strides toward achieving full equality.