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Interview with Alanna Inserra
Being a victim doesn’t necessarily mean you are powerless, after all.
I always had a strong sense of what I perceived to be right and wrong when I was a kid, particularly in relation to boys and girls. I remember being in prep and the boy that I had a ‘crush on’ told me that I wasn’t allowed to like blue, because that was a boys’ colour. I was only allowed to like pink or purple.
I went to the colour chart and realised that meant that out of however many colours there were I was only allowed to like two - two out of all of them! That is probably my first memory that something wasn’t right there.
As a teenager I continued to have the same sort of feelings. Identifying as feminist isn’t easy as a teenage girl, so I just let everything go. I dyed my hair blonde, believed women had achieved equality in every sense of the world, and focused my attention on fitting in.
Then I went to university and took a couple of subjects that were radical feminist in nature. These subjects shifted the way I looked at the world. I didn't have to be 'sexy' and 'fun' and 'empowered' - I could be critical and aware of injustice.
That feeling I always had that something was not quite right -though I had been told I was equal - now made sense. Feminism gave me a new framework to apply to my own life, my own experiences. A feminist analysis showed me that you can end formal discrimination, but you can still have discrimination running rampant and entrenched inequality persisting. There is a difference between formal and substantive equality for women, and I think if we look to our anonymous interactions with individuals on the street we can get a good look at the real state of gender relations in Australia.
Hollaback! Melbourne was started because in January 2012 I was driving down Alexandra Parade and I pulled up in my car at a red light when a group of young men pulled up next to me. They were heckling me; there is no other word for it.
It was so bad I pulled over and I cried, it upset me so badly, and I felt so intruded upon. I felt really powerless in that situation, not speaking back because I was afraid of it escalating; afraid of all these things we are told to be afraid of as women.
I was in Honours research mode at the time so I went home and did some research about street harassment where I found the movement Hollaback. Everything they were saying about street harassment and why it occurred resonated with me. It said you could apply to start your own Hollaback in your city, so I pressed the ‘Apply’ button, did a quick application and here we are with Hollaback in Melbourne!
There are eight of us who do this now. It is great. The idea is that you crowdsource stories of harassment via social media and use these anonymous stories to make a point about how prevalent, harmful and entrenched street harassment is in your city. Hollaback! is about the power of collective story telling, and also of consciousness raising.
We underwent a training process where we were taught how to use the website, talk to the press and how to run workshops, but the majority of what we do we have learnt since we launched in September 2012 and started talking to people about our project, articulating why street harassment is problematic and defending our position, particularly to men and women who argue that street harassment is not a significant problem for women, or that we have it good in this country and that we really shouldn’t be 'harping on' about it.
Well we are. We harp on a lot. Street harassment is problematic. It makes us as women curtail our behaviour and our actions in public. It functions to limits our movement because we are afraid to walk around alone in public at night. We can be afraid to go on trains even in the middle of the day. As such it limits our access to, and ability to use, public space to the full extent.
To some extent we as women live our whole lives being fearful. Look at all the preventative measures women take quite automatically, like carrying keys in clenched fists when we are out alone; crossing to the other side of the street when we see a man coming down the street; talking on the phone when we are not actually on the phone; looking for the next safe space is, where there is lighting, where there is a shop, where there are other women who might be able to help you or where there is a crowd when you hear a man’s footsteps behind you. These are evasive measures men don’t usually take.
It is just expected that we do these things. And I really feel we can create a safer culture for women on the streets, a space where we are more comfortable and where we can be ourselves.
I think that when you are harassed on the street someone else is defining who you are, how you should be. They are judging your appearance - positive or negative. They are enforcing strict gender roles, and trying to enforce that women are powerless and that LGB people do not fit in. When you get to Hollaback! Melbourne and speak against the harassment you are saying that no-one has the right to define you except yourself.
I think it is so important for women, that we start reclaiming the right to define ourselves. Just the ability to do that, because there is such a specific image of what it means and how you should be as a woman, or a girl, and we don’t need those damaging stereotypes reinforced by strangers on the street.
When you are harassed because you are seen as overweight, or ugly, what it is saying is that because you don’t fit in to a masculine idea of feminine beauty. When you are complimented it is not a reward, because it is upsetting. It is enforcing that you look the way you should, that you are conforming to femininity.
Our ability to define who we are should not have anything to do with this concept of femininity, or what it means to be a woman; it should be about who we are as people.
When I have been harassed on the street, even when I have had something positive said about me it hasn’t made me feel good or empowered. It has made me feel objectified, like my body is subject to the whims of others. It has made me feel powerless that I don’t have the right to walk down the street without someone intruding on my space.
I don’t see how anyone can imagine that street harassment for women is a positive thing or a compliment. It is not.
This concept of being a victim - well, I don’t feel that victim is a dirty word - it is not. When you have a victim you have a perpetrator and it is important that we label who is perpetrating this. In the vast majority of cases of street harassment the perpetrator is male - the research backs it up - so it is a problem that men also need get on board with.
We as women need to tell men not to do it, and not be afraid to identify that it is men do this to us and that we do not accept it. Being a victim doesn’t necessarily mean you are powerless, after all.
Being in denial about the state of things, that you are not ever a victim, that you always have power, is a delusion that we are fed. Once you can acknowledge this you can start taking back your own power. You can start working actively against this. I think people who are activists first recognise their own victimhood to some extent.
At Hollaback we don’t recommend a specific course of action when we are asked. We encourage everyone to assess their situation, to decide if they feel safe to say something at any particular time. If you don’t feel safe you should never feel pressured that you should have responded, that responding is the only way to be powerful.
You can just walk away. You can tell the police if you want to. You can come to our site and tell your story.
They say with the vast number of harassment cases if you look the harasser directly in the eye, use strong body language, if you stand up, don’t cross your arms, speak up and clearly identify the behaviour it is effective.
Label the behaviour. Say it is not acceptable. For example: ‘Do grope me or speak to me in that way. It is harassment and it is not acceptable.’
Men as bystanders can do great things, too. So can women. All it takes is just a sympathetic glance or to roll your eyes at the person who is doing the harassing to let the victim know they are not so alone, that they don’t have to be so scared that things will escalate. I think we need to have each other’s backs to some extent. Step in. You will probably be O.K.
There is a great video on Youtube of a woman in a subway in New York. She had a man rubbing up against her and this woman, she just looked out, saying ‘stay right there and I will escort you to the police station I am escorting this man to the police station’. You should have seen the man’s face!
Hollaback started because two events happened at the same time in New York. There was a woman on the subway who had a man masturbating from across her,at her. She took a photo of him and she took it to the police, only to be told they couldn’t do anything about it. So she put it in Flickr and it went viral.
The man was outed as a very famous owner of a raw foods restaurant in New York. At the same time there were seven university students in New York who started talking about street harassment. Some of them were men and the men said that there must be something really wrong with New York because these things didn’t happen where they lived!
So the women started a blog where people could submit their stories of how people had harassed them. Over time the blog just grew till now Hollaback is in fifty cities and still growing. In our case our launch coincided with a launch at Sheffield, England; Poland; Lima in Peru, I believe. It is particularly popular in India, England and the U.S.
I think that shows that street harassment is not a cultural problem. It is worldwide gender problem of unequal power between the sexes. So we can combat it worldwide.
Hollaback is about starting locally where we can work to shift attitudes on the ground about how harmful harassment is. Many men who harass, I like to believe, do not understand the extent of the negative impact they are having on women. Not the gropers or masturbaters or stalkers, of course. They do it knowingly to intimidate. But those who are honking and wolf whistling?
I think you can sometimes reach out and make them, to some extent, understand what it feels like to be a woman on the street. That is worthwhile work to start doing. The other thing you can do is to prosecute, of course. But let us start with a public conversation.
Let us give women a space where they speak about their stories and their experiences, spaces where they are not going to be shut down and told they are being trivial. There is really something to be said for reading other women’s stories and experiences.
Something that happens to the majority of women, that happens so frequently, that affects us negatively and makes us fearful is a real problem.
In Melbourne we are at http://melbourne.ihollaback.org/ We are also on Facebook at Hollaback! Melbourne.