Ever so solicitously, last week La Nación published a list of recommendations on how to avoid getting sexually harassed in public, following a highly publicized instance of rape in which a young woman was accosted by her taxi driver.
As members of the fairer sex, we’re bombarded with these sorts of instructions our entire lives. “Never walk alone at night,” “Always keep your bearings in mind,” “No dilly dallying,” “Consider taking up krav maga,” etc. And, inevitably, we all end up breaking these prescriptions – certainly not in a bid to be daredevils, but simply because curfews and constant mobile security guards can’t be the norm in our day-to-day lives.
The article’s author concedes that “specialists” agree there is no way to completely protect oneself from an attack and that these suggestions are mere tools to potentially prevent the otherwise inescapable. (Bleak.)
Let’s have a look at the specific recommendations:
1. Know exactly where you are and be aware of the people surrounding you at all times
2. Avoid isolated areas
3. Trust your instincts – if you don’t feel comfortable in a particular area, leave
4. Avoid using ear phones in both ears in order to remain alert
5. Be mindful of your drinks when out at parties
6. Always go out and return home in a group
7. Always call a taxi by phone or via some form of app
I dig that we’re meant to behave like community-oriented Soviet spies (I imagine clusters of women running from one block to another and slamming onto shadow-covered walls, quickly glancing left and right before darting off again, all the while clutching hermetically sealed Cosmos), but ultimately, I’m not sure any of us have the energy to constantly behave in this hyper-alert manner. Plus, the patented Porteño platform – of which I am a proud owner as of a week ago – severely impedes most forms of accelerated motion [running, parkour, etc.]. My shoe’s deceased heel stands as evidence.
So recommendations to avoid street-side aggression may be well intentioned, but unfortunately, they’re just about as useful as a guide to avoid stepping in dog refuse (“Always keep your nose down,” “Never walk down obscure alleyways,” “Heighten your olfactory senses”).
They certainly speak of an unfortunate reality in which women are not safe to move around as they please and should exercise caution, be they in Buenos Aires, New York or New Delhi. But suggesting women act like a society of paranoid secret agents rather than addressing the underlying issues that create a machista culture – one that not only endangers women, but any segment of the population deemed “weak” – is at best misguided and at worst, outright detrimental.
An Argentine friend recently told me how as a mere child of 12 or 13 – when men began taking notice of her in public settings – her mother instructed her to never look at the men who cried out for her attention, no matter how benign or lewd their calls. Any sort of recognition – be it a grimace – would be taken as encouragement, she was told. One day, as she and her mother were exiting a mall, she glanced back in the direction of a sound – a matter of reflex – the origin of which proved to be a group of men trying to get her attention. Not stopping an instant, of course, she followed her mother out. Once they’d crossed the mall’s threshold, her mother sharply rebuked her for having “looked back.”
It’s a tale as old as time. You looked back? You were encouraging them. Your wore that skirt? You were egging him on. You wore earphones in both ears? You were definitely asking for it.
And no, I’m not blaming men. I’m blaming the education many receive that makes them believe this sort of behavior is normal. I’m not sure where this failure to uphold human dignity comes from – certainly, it must have something to do with a feeling of powerlessness that is then taken out on those deemed less powerful. A way for the disenfranchised to reclaim some sort of (ill) perceived dignity.
But the effects are grizzly. According to Argentine NGO Casa del Encuentro, 277 femicides were committed in 2014, or 1,808 in the last seven years in Argentina – that’s approximately one death every 30 hours. And those are rough most likely deflated estimates taken from the media, considering there are no official statistics.
To stop violence against women – be it rape, murder, or any other act committed because women are seen as expendable – we have to end the catcalls, the whistling; all of it. No, of course, a person mumbling a lewd phrase about a woman’s ass as she walks by is not committing as heinous an act as rape – but the two forms of harassment come down to the same thing: taking away a woman’s ability to have a say in what is said or done to her body.
So no, in terms of women’s personal safety, I don’t have better recommendations on top “remaining alert” or “avoiding walking alone at night” – the point is, I shouldn’t have to dish out advice on self preservation at all.
What we should be doing is educating young men and women to uphold human dignity at all costs and across the board – across gender lines, ethnicities, social class, etc. That’s the conversation we should be having as a society as a whole, rather than barking at victims of machismo to cover up their thighs or pull out an earphone when walking in certain neighborhoods.
Certain organizations here in Argentina have taken up the masthead. Annual Encuentros Nacionales de Mujeres see thousands of women from the whole country over convene for three days of charlas (conversation) and workshops aimed at finding solutions to everyday sexism. Atrevete!, Argentina’s chapter of the Hollaback! movement, encourages women to expose instances of street harassment via an iPhone app.
The point is to generate conversation. You don’t even have to wave a banner or sign up with an NGO – just talk about it and be receptive to other women’s stories.
We wouldn’t want platform-donning, secret ninja societies of women prowling the streets at night, would we?