This post was migrated from an old blog. Since it was published in 2017, anti-street harassment ordinances have been passed in Manila and Quezon City. These are the first of many, many steps in the right direction.
Featured image by Lum3n.com
My walk from home to work takes about ten minutes. I leave the apartment building and walk past a mall, an empty lot, and a small factory before reaching the building where the station is located.
A construction project started nearby just this week. On my Tuesday morning walk, I passed by about 30 construction workers on their break. They were lined up on either side of the sidewalk, some sitting, some leaning against a wall — most jeering, whistling, yelling, and even growling when I walked past. I’d say it was like walking through a zoo, but at the zoos I’ve visited, the animals were far better behaved. One of the men who was seated stood up and went to the middle of the sidewalk like he was going to block my way (You’d be surprised how many men do this to women walking alone) but then moved at the last minute and laughed hysterically with his friends.
On Wednesday, I had my pocket knife in hand. My knife was a gift from my father who knew that I usually came home alone, sometimes walking part of the way. Since I got into theater and choir in college, I’d head home late after rehearsal on some nights. Though I’ve never had to use it to defend myself, I feel safer carrying it in my pocket. When he gave it to me, my dad taught me how to flip it open with one hand.
That’s what I did on Wednesday morning. As I passed through the same group of men, I pulled the knife of my pocket, made sure none of them were actually standing nearby, and snapped it open. I clicked it closed again while walking through, then opened it again, then closed it one more time and put it back in my pocket. They still stared, but they did so very, very quietly. This time, none of them tried to come near me or stand in my way.
I kept on walking to work, but I had a strong urge to approach one of them and ask them how it feels when you’re going about your day and someone suddenly does something that makes you feel unsafe. How does it feel to see someone enjoying your fear and panic? How does it feel to have a potential threat of danger waved in your face? If they told their friends and family about what I did, would they be laughed at? Told that they shouldn’t be loitering there? Mocked for overreacting, and advised to just stop being so sensitive?
I am not a violent person. If one of the men or even if all of them had catcalled me again or come near me, I wouldn’t have tried to slash or stab them, however strong the temptation may be. But if I worried them, if I made them scared of being harmed, if I made them want to get away from me — I don’t feel sorry about that.
I feel like catcalling is something discussed so much on social media and in classrooms as of late, but some people still don’t get it. Some people would still say that my response was unjustified, despite the fact that I didn’t actually do anything. And those same people will use that very reason to defend catcallers: they didn’t actually “do” anything.
They’d say that how I reacted was unnecessary. So when exactly is harassing a woman necessary? Show me the receipts for all the income you lost by not whistling at a woman or girl who passes by. Show me the x-rays from all the bones you broke by resisting the urge to shout “Hey, sexy!” at someone who’s just trying to get to work. Show me exactly how not harassing someone is detrimental to your well-being. I would love to hear it.
My last story happened on Thursday and involves only one construction worker. The large group from Tuesday and Wednesday were no longer sitting in their usual spot. I wonder if they talked among themselves and decided it wasn’t worth it to sit there if the angry girl with the knife walked by again. Guess I’ll never know.
This man was standing near the empty lot. I assumed he worked for the same company because he was wearing the same shirt and vest as the others. I don’t know whether he was part of the group from the previous days.
When I passed the lot, he didn’t shout or whistle or bark like a dog, but he did call out to me. He said “Good morning, ma’am.”
I didn’t stop to talk, but I turned to him briefly and said “Good morning, po,” as I walked by.
This third story is not about catcalling. What he did doesn’t fit my definition of catcalling. This is about the kind of interaction that could happen if people practiced the kind of respect that simply doesn’t come with street harassment. (I doubt there is any confusion about this, but just to be perfectly clear — “respectful harassment” isn’t a thing.)
Still, I understand that some women would not have responded to him in a friendly way if they were in my shoes, and I don’t fault them for it. Some women get catcalled on the street so often that they assume that anyone who addresses them is a potential harasser. The correct response to this problem isn’t “Not all men!!”. It’s understanding that if vulgar, creepy, explicit catcalling (versus polite or at least ambiguous greetings) didn’t happen so often, women wouldn’t have to be on guard all the time.
But what a mind-boggling, weird and wonderful idea: You can get a stranger’s attention without objectifying them or making them uncomfortable. It is possible and actually quite easy to say “Hello” to someone in a friendly, non-threatening way. I hope that I hear more of it, and I hope that all the other women who are sick of street harassment hear more of it, too.