The streets are not safe for women…

Lina AbiRafeh
6 min readApr 25, 2023

While walking my dog one balmy April night, I crossed paths with a man who turned to me and said: “I wanna pin you down and fuck the shit out of you.” As if he has a right to say this.

“Asshole!” I screamed. It was the only thing I could think of to say. He had already turned his back. Another man had watched the scene transpire. He laughed. Is this new, or unusual?

Unfortunately not. For too many women, it is unbearably ordinary.

If I had a dollar for everytime I’ve experienced street harassment, I’d be a rich woman. In fact, if all women were being compensated for their troubles — maybe we’d be closer to closing the economic gender gap. Imagine a world where women have equal access to the sidewalk, let alone equal pay and positions of power and influence. Is that so much to ask?

Yes, it seems so, considering that we can’t even make the streets safer for women. Women here in the US and around the world are all too familiar having their walks, commutes and travels disrupted by harassment. These are never harmless comments.

Rather, they are designed to objectify a woman’s body, to assert power, and to dehumanize. This reduces women’s safety, and restricts our access to public space — space we all have a right to access. This narrows our sphere, limits our mobility, curbs our freedom. The impact of these comments on our mental and physical health — and our fundamental rights and freedoms — cannot be underestimated.

And meanwhile, as we fear traveling and commuting on our own, we’re expected to take responsibility for our own safety — and blamed when we don’t.

Be careful where you go!
Don’t walk alone at night!
You can’t go out dressed like that!
If you’re faced with a group of men on the sidewalk, cross the street!
Walk fast, head down!
Wear headphones — but don’t have any sound on!
Carry your keys in your hand — just in case!

We shouldn’t have to live like this. But the reality is — we do. And so do women worldwide. One global survey found that 79% of women living in cities in India, 86% in Thailand, and 89% in Brazil have been subjected to harassment or violence in public. In France, up to 100% of women have experienced sexual harassment on public transportation. 100% means… every woman. And in the UK, 97% of women in a survey said they had been sexual harassed in public spaces. A study interviewing close to 5,000 men found that 31% in Lebanon and 64% in Egypt admitted to having sexually harassed women and girls in public. Now imagine those who did not admit it. And in the US, a survey revealed that 81% of women experience some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime.

It’s not just words. 25% of women who are catcalled said that this also led to inappropriate touching. Another study found that, of the women who had experienced street harassment, 20% had been followed, and 9% had been forced to do something sexual.

Yes, street harassment can happen to anyone, including men. But we also know that men are disproportionately likely to perpetrate most forms of violence. Why?

Equimundo, a global leader in research and advocacy around masculinities and gender equality set out to find the answers. They see four drivers:

  1. Inequitable gender norms that encourage sexual harassment and men’s domination
  2. Context-specific factors, like specific norms in a fraternity, workplace, peer group or sports team
  3. Reactionary or backlash harassment by men — for instance to women’s new leadership, new roles
  4. Power imbalances between individuals or groups, particularly related to men’s power over women.

Those are a lot of places where our safety is contested! What’s more, they found that too many men are bound by restrictive norms around what it means to be a “real man” — stuff like self sufficiency, acting tough, physical attractiveness, rigid masculine gender norms, heterosexuality and homophobia, hypersexuality and aggression and control. They found that young men who hold strong beliefs about these norms are ten times more likely to have harassed women than the men who did not subscribe to these norms. Ten times.

There’s a clear conclusion here: harassment is a form of abusing power that has been normalized just about everywhere.

I want to fight back… what can I do? I hear you say. Yeah, me too.

Last week was anti-street harassment week — founded thirteen years ago by Holly Kearl, the creator of Stop Street Harassment. SSH documents street harassment with hopes to eventually end it. Their work includes research, a national hotline, and information and advocacy campaigns. They do this all year round, of course, but they scream a lot louder during anti-street harassment week.

There is a movement working to resist street harassment.

Chalk Back is one of those — a young feminist organization working to stop gender based street harassment through chalk art and digital advocacy. To mark the week, they hosted a virtual event with activists, creatives and founders in the movement.

Beyond anti-street harassment week, Chalk Back shares stories, raises global awareness, and calls on everyone to be part of the solution.

Chalk Back was founded in 2016 by Sophie Sandberg, committed to ending catcalling through public chalk art, advocacy, and digital media. The movement began as a single Instagram account — catcalls of NYC — and has since grown to encompass 70 related accounts around the world. The organization uses chalk to write stories of harassment word-for-word in the spots where they happened. Using the hashtag #StopStreetHarassment, these lines are then posted on social media to raise awareness, share stories, encourage dialogue, and foster bold cultural change. The work they do is amazing — I admire them so much, I joined their Board.

Responses to the chalked comments have been overwhelming. Many have expressed gratitude for having a place to share their story, and have it publicly seen. Men have shown up as allies. People are asking how they can support.

But also, seeing comments written out on the pavements has shocked people. Many can’t believe how vulgar they actually are. Hearing “It’ll be so good, you won’t want to call it rape,” is bad enough. Seeing it written out in neon chalk exactly where it happened is a whole new level.

The movement has become a leading force for advocacy and creative resistance, with more than 1000 activists fighting for gender justice and equal access to public space, challenging an overlooked aspect of gender-based violence.

While the focus should be on educating men and boys, women and girls still need to protect themselves. So how do we respond? In the moment, it’s about safety first.

With that in mind, Sandberg explains that some people describe freezing and being unable to think. Others may not say anything or ignore it completely so as not to provoke further harassment. If you are with others, and are comfortable doing so, a simple comeback might suffice. She suggests something like “don’t do that” or “that’s harassment” can work. Another option is to document it by writing it down or talking to a friend about it as this will provide some relief.

Feminista Jones, creator of #YouOkSis, emphasized the importance of bystander intervention that focuses on checking in with the victim of harassment.

The important thing to remember, she stresses, is that it’s never your fault. The onus lies with the perpetrator. Bottom line: This is harassment. This is a crime. Women deserve to feel safe. And — damn, I’ve said it 1000 times before — if women are not safe, NO ONE is safe.

Going forward, Chalk Back plans to raise funds to support creating more widespread public art and educational responses to street harassment.

And, they’ve opened the door for people to ask how they can help. In order to create a truly sustainable movement, Chalk Back plans to develop additional programming to support activists’ mental health and offer guidance and funding for further action.

Sandberg puts it this way:

We want everyone to be able to exist freely and joyously in public space. And we’ll keep chalking until that’s the reality.

Resources and ways to get involved

National Street Harassment Hotline

Call toll free: (855)897–5910 or visit www.stopstreetharassment.org

Services in English and Spanish

Chalk Back Want to be part of this movement? Start a chapter in your city. Join the board.

If you want to participate, simply chalk and tag @chalkbackorg and @thesafecityapp

@catcallsofnyc | @chalkbackorg

www.catcallsofnyc.com

www.chalkback.org

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights activist, author, speaker, aid worker with 3 decades of global experience - and lots to say! More on my website: www.LinaAbiRafeh.com