They ain’t no Hollaback girls… or are they?
Interview for TYCI in a cafe Edinburgh, Nov 2012.
TYCI met up with a couple of the ladies behind the Scottish branch of the global movement working to end street harassment. We got together for some cake and discuss all things feminist, and to work out how you go about a revolution, girl style.
What is Hollaback! And what are your roles there?
E: Hollaback in general is a global campaign against street harassment and Hollaback Edinburgh is the first one in Scotland that is looking at it specifically. We’ve got a website where people can report what has happened and how it made them feel so we can map people’s experiences, see the prevalence of it and what is actually happening to them. What we are doing off of that is a whole range of different awareness raising stuff. Lena and Mia are looking at education and doing different workshops with people and lots of outreach. We did a workshop with LGBT youth recently.
I’m the coordinator and deal with the public awareness elements, so I plan launches and any on-line campaigning. We’re to launch a new on-line campaign called ‘No One Ever’ which will be challenging the idea that street harassment is a compliment. Anything from wolf-whistle to all kinds of names and all that sort of stuff is not a compliment. We’re trying to find funny ways to challenge that sort of stuff.
L: I’m the education coordinator with Mia. We are in charge of the education or the learning side. We had a workshop with the LGBT Youth Scotland and we are going to have another at the Scotland Feminist Conference in January. It’s basically about getting out there and talking to people about what street harassment is and how we can challenge it.
What link do you have with Hollaback! in other cities?
E: There’s a Hollaback world Facebook page which is a private group where all the Hollaback people are part of and there’s UK one as well. We have Skype calls between the different UK sites as well who recently met up at the UK feminist conference. It’s pretty informal with lots of web contact. To set up a Hollaback! site you need to go through 4 months of training and it’s quite in-depth. You are put in a class with people from Poland, Australia, Africa and America. It’s amazing, doing these online seminars and watching Emily Mays, the director, do presentations on different issues. We are all directly trained by the same person, at the same time in different classes, so we are quite well connected to the other Hollaback! sites.
Do you think this is a new wave of feminism or the next, or even last step towards female equality?
Both: (laughing) Last?! Wooo!
E: That would be amazing!
L: I don’t think I’ll live to see the last step so… I think it’s very third wave, Riot Grrrl! It’s all very much about being “badass”, self-identification and knowing that you’re worth something and defending yourself for that.
E: Just the terms of the debate are slightly different, like there’s more focus maybe on gender than necessarily women, and men. It’s looking at the whole grammar of gender expression, which is more a third wave thing.
L: We want our work to be exceptional, so that we know the differences in class and race and ability, which is important and didn’t sadly show up until third wave.
E: The bottom line about what you think about street harassment is essentially don’t act like a “George Galloway” (a reference to her friend replacing calling people a cunt, because she doesn’t like the derogatory use of the word, with George Galloway). Don’t act like that to strangers! At its heart is compassion and empathy and we need to think about why it happens, about misogyny, sexism, homophobia, so it’s probably approaching things from a slightly different angle.
L: My approach is that everyone can be a feminist. If you want gender equality and are ready to fight for it, no matter what sex you are, you can be a feminist. But I think what can be difficult for a white male to understand is this feeling of walking the streets. If I’m walking home and I see three men, I will start thinking “Oh god, are they going to say something, are they going to grab me?” and that experience is so frightening.
We are going to screen a film at the workshop which is called ‘Warzone’ which is about a woman who films people who harasses her, and she stops and asks “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?” I spoke to my brother and he had watched it with his girlfriend, and he was saying “Well y’know I’m glad it is different here in Sweden, it’s not that bad.” His girlfriend and I just looked at him said “No, it is just as bad here. You just don’t know it.”
E: It’s just so invisible!
L: It’s difficult to see if you have not been exposed to it.
E: I suppose going back to your first question, that’s really the purpose of it: to make peoples experiences of it visible. So many men, or typical “man-type” people, are not going to see it, they won’t experience it and they will so easily ignore it. “Oh it’s these kinds of men or only happens here”.
I think that’s really exciting, the different ways that we are doing it, whether it’s through education, using the internet or through politics; this is actually bringing it out in the open. This is something that happens and it feels absolutely shite as well. It happens all the time and feels awful.
L: It’s one of the things I think Mary (the political coordinator) says people ask her:
“What are you talking about?”
“Why street harassment?“
“That’s stupid, that’s rubbish”
But ten years ago people would say that about domestic abuse or workplace harassment.
E: It gives people hope that things can change. Workplace harassment still happens an obscene amount, but it’s the terms of debate around it, like it’s just harmless banter you need to lighten up all that kind of stuff. I think women get to the point where they’re confident enough to say “Actually no, I don’t want to fucking lighten up, this is hurtful and makes me feel frightened”.
So how do you draw boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not, when it comes to public behaviour?
E: So a compliment is not a compliment if the recipient finds it frightening and they don’t like it. That is what the issue comes down to: Is your behaviour potentially going to make someone feel like crap? If you’re not sure, don’t do it.
L: I get annoyed or angry when a gang of guys approach me and are like “Hi, how you doing?”. Is this harassment or is it not? They would never do that to another man. They’re doing it because I am a woman, and because of that my body is somehow public property. But they are not saying anything sexual, although it is implied, so it is tricky. Since I’ve started at Hollaback! I’ve learned to challenge that, by asking them “Why do you speak to strangers in the street?” because they probably haven’t thought about it.
There is an emphasis on the psychological when it comes to street harassment, do you think people know what they are doing when they are either the perpetrators or even the victims?
E: I don’t think they know what they are doing, particularly when it is grounded in “rape culture”. The idea where, as a woman, your body is up for public debate, public spaces aren’t really yours. So how do you connect that with saying “Hello, how are you?”. I don’t think people have really thought about this, and it is a matter of unpicking it. Asking the questions about what the reasons are for this and why am I doing this? That is one end of the spectrum of it and at the other we have outright racism, homophobia, disablism or sexism and I don’t have an idea about what street harassers feel about that.
L: So much of it has to do about gender roles. Usually when I have been street harassed it has been a group of people rather that one person. It is to do with roles about masculinity and whether you are manly or not if you shout something at a woman.
Do you get much resistance from people outside the organisation, particularly men, when you tell them what it is all about?
L: I’m surprised that we haven’t had much more resistance, but I think it’s because we don’t call it feminist. I call it feminist but it is not in the name.
E: In my personal life, if anyone says anything, about it being PC gone mad, then I would say if there is a slight chance that what you will say will make someone feel frightened, then it is up to you to take that risk, and is that the sort of person you want to be?! We can say whatever we like, but it is about being mindful about what you are saying to the people around you and making sure that it is not something you should be ashamed of. I speak to some women who would not identify as being feminist, but they feel that street harassment is something okay to share. There is a less of a taboo, because it is in public places, than there is around rape or domestic abuse which people associate shame with, which they shouldn’t do. But because street harassment is out in the open people are more likely to agree and say that it has happened to them and it is okay to talk about it.
Are there not serious issues with safety when anyone considers to Hollaback!? How can an organisation encourage women to antagonise men in a possibly volatile situation?
E: I guess everyone uses their own judgement about what feels safe and people’s personal safety should never be put at risk. A Hollaback! could be a post on the website, it doesn’t have to be there and then. In my day job I run a Bystander programme for colleges and universities which is all about looking at all the techniques you can use to intervene in sexism and homophobia, including street harassment. There are ways you can do it in a safe space. Your response doesn’t have to be in the heat of the moment, it can be going away and organising a bake sale for Hollaback!, posting a story on the website, going to an education workshop, talking to your friends and raising your own awareness. There are lots of things you can do to make you feel that you have got control over that situation.
L: Answering back is just one of the things you can do. You can do so much as a bystander, if you see someone being street harassed, say something to them.
E: By someone asking you if you are alright, it can make an experience less frightening.
What advice would you give to women?
L: One of the old feminist tips was if someone is being sexist, instead of just reacting, say what has happened: “You just called me a cunt”. Say what you think about that: “I don’t like you calling me a cunt”. And third what you want to happen: “I would like you not to call me a cunt again”.
What have you got planned for the future?
E: We’ve got this online campaign, called ‘No-one Ever’ so we’re going to get a whole bunch of pictures ready to go online and hopefully go viral to start these conversations. Then something around Christmas, maybe a Christmas party or something like that. We have got a 3 year strategy.
L: We will be at the Scotland Feminist Conference in Jan/Feb and at Christmas I think we are planning to do more political lobbying, sending Christmas cards to MSPs.
E: Also, maybe a Christmas campaign like, ‘Dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is not be street harassed’. We’ll have a film screening and we will have a few bits on the go, so just check it out on the blog and the Facebook page.