I stake a claim to three national identities. I was born in England, raised in the States and my parents are from India.
I’ve spent enough time in each of these places, specifically London, New York and Kolkata, to be able to draw some commonalities between the three. The first that come to mind are bustling crowds (from the West End to Soho to Park Street), lively bazaars and outdoor markets (from Portobello Market to the Union Square Green Markets to Hatibagan), excellent alternative modes of transport (from the tube to the subway to auto rickshaws).
The other big commonality? Street harassment -- the whistling, the leering, the following, the trying to hold my hand or grab me, the "Hello, can I get your number?" All of it.
Stories of sexual harassment and assault that have garnered widespread international attention in the last couple of years have focused quite exclusively on India. With the high profile Delhi rape and murder, the rape of tourists from Switzerland and Denmark and the University of Chicago student who chronicled her experiences of harassment while studying abroad, India has become the epicenter of conversations related to sexual harassment and assault. For many people, this has led to a gross misconception that this is something that happens "over there," but most definitely not in our own backyards.
When I recently described the work I do as the Deputy Director of anti-street harassment organization, Hollaback!, to a fellow New Yorker at a work event in Times Square, she stared at me in disbelief asking, "But does it happen here in New York? Where?"
When I told her we have sites all over the world, including India, she started to nod with understanding, "Oh, okay, now that make sense. When I traveled to India, I wish someone had prepared me for it."
While I myself have experienced and witnessed street harassment during family holidays to Kolkata, the city of my parent’s birth, I know for certain that it is not the only place where it happens, yet I find myself having to make this case time and time again.
My time in London, much of it in my 20s, was plagued with all kinds of sexual and racial harassment. I’ll never forget when a friend and I were walking to the bus stop in Camden and a car full of men pulled up to the curb with "psssts," "What’s your name?" and "Can I get your number?" When we didn’t respond, the car started creeping alongside us as we walked, with more of the same comments. When I finally told them to "Piss off and get lost," they started angrily yelling "What, are you lesbians or something?" We were worried things would escalate so we ran down the street to get on the bus, any bus.
There was also the experience of working at the front door of a venue on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, and the countless comments I received, many of them targeting my small physical stature, my gender and racial identity. I was also often harassed by a colleague who worked at the door with me -- the same colleague who would leer and call out at women walking by the venue on those Friday and Saturday nights.
These are but a couple of examples.
I've also faced harassment in New York City, where I currently live. Months ago I was taking the 2/3 train to work in Brooklyn, when on a nearly empty subway car, a man across from me put a copy of the free metro paper on his lap and struggled to unzip his jeans. To no avail, I tried to catch the eye of the two others on the far end of the train, to draw their attention to what was happening. Luckily at the next stop, someone got on and sat close enough to me to send the man across from me to the other end of the train. As I looked over at him, I saw his legs splayed and his hand fondling himself behind the newspaper. He was staring straight at me.
Horrified and not knowing what else to do, I subtly took a photo of him and posted it along with my story on Hollaback!’s website and my social media networks. Doing this made me feel less a victim and more empowered and supported.
Widely held assumptions around gender-based violence are that it happens mostly in the developing world. Not so. It just takes on different forms in different places. The same thing applies to street harassment. Street harassment may look different depending on where you are, but it happens everywhere.
I’ve shared my experiences of being harassed in two places other than India; the place of my birth and the place of my residence. I could keep that list going as experienced on my travels to places including Buenos Aires, where people could not stop staring and occasionally yelling at me and my British Caribbean friend as if we were a sideshow, or in Venice where the persistence of the gelato vendor was especially embarrassing in the presence of my Mom and Dad, or on top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, where a couple of men made multiple attempts to talk to me and a female friend while we were simply trying to take in the stunning views.
It’s also important to note that the people who have harassed me in all of these wonderful places came from many racial/ethnic and class backgrounds. With the assumption that street harassment happens "over there," comes the assumption that it is "those men or that class of men over there" that do the harassing.
All of the latest coverage of harassment on the streets of India makes Indian men look like heathens. When I have made this point, people have asked, "But haven’t you been harassed by Indian men while in India?" Yes, I have, but I have also been harassed by men of many backgrounds in the very diverse cities of London and New York. People will then ask "But weren’t they all immigrant men?" Absolutely not. This line of questioning is all too common.
Street harassment is about power and control and is a part of the greater system of patriarchy that we are expected to tolerate globally. It happens "over there" just as it happens as plain as day over here, and everywhere in between.