Taking back our power: SAFIRE talks about street harassment

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Image from www.stopstreetharassment.org
By Mai Doan, SAFIRE Youth Organizer

“Psssssssssst.” “Hey Girl…” “Beautiful!” “Nice Rack!” “Hey Sexy.” “Let me get your number!”

Some days, I want to jump out of my body. It can take only one bike ride on a warm day, a short walk from BART to the office, one bus ride where I have chosen to sit with an empty seat next to me. It takes only minute for me to shrink up inside myself in shame and embarrassment, sexualized in a way I never asked for because someone felt entitled to my space and my body.

Even though I had understood how deep-seated racism and sexism, upheld by our media, institutions, and even our own families, create and perpetuate types of interpersonal oppression and violence such as street harassment, I never knew what to do in these situations. Whether I walked away or talked back, I always felt like a victim because I was the one left carrying the wound.

The young women that come into SAFIRE are no different. In our Street Harassment workshop this past Wednesday, 100% of the women in the room raised their hands when asked if they have ever been harassed in a public space. 100% of them have either been followed, yelled after, honked at or physically touched. 100% of them have felt objectified, sexualized, fetishized, upset, embarrassed, unsafe.

Outside of venting to our friends, this was the first space that all of us had had to explore our experiences, as well as solutions to this thing that was deeply affecting all of us, almost every day. Together, we named the words that are thrown at us, the gestures made towards us, the invasive starring that follows us, unwanted. We explored what it felt like in our bodies when we heard these words and what our most common reactions were.

Then, we took back our power.

No one ever told me that I had both OPTIONS and POWER in these situations and that I was able to determine what both of these looked like. In the past, it was easy for me to feel victimized and powerless because I hadn’t recognized that whether I talked back or walked away, I was deciding. In developing this workshop, Amanda, Akasha and I made sure that the young women would walk away knowing not only that street harassment is not their fault, but that both options and power were theirs.

Together, we brainstormed ways of responding to street harassment that left us feeling powerful. We recognized all of us are all going to have different tools, words and gestures that we feel comfortable using but that it is up to us to try it, to figure out what works best for us. Then, using Forward Stance, a mind-body approach we bring to our work, we grounded our bodies into awareness, power, and strength. In this stance, each of the young women took turns practicing their own empowered response to street harassers. We established that we are the ones to decide when the interaction is over and when to walk away, and gave ourselves permission to follow our gut. Through all of this, plus laughter, SAFIRE walked away as a community of young women with concrete tools to resist street harassment and its impacts in powerful ways, both for themselves and for each other.

That evening, I walked outside onto a dimming, bustling street. I felt much less alone and much more powerful, equipped with options, power, stance and a whole lot of young women who have my back/can holla back.

Resources on Street Harassment:

INCITE!’s Ending Street Harassment Pamphlet

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