In 2014, street harassment remains (along with other outlets for patriarchy) a social problem globally. It remains largely under-dealt with and under-publicised. Sexual prejudice and oppression are still a thing as patriarchy is force fed down our throats. This is a serious vigil in the face of the age of information and other liberations.
It transpires that there is next to nothing being done about ending street harassment in South Africa. Recently, I was in a conversation about the idea that billboards instructing men on appropriate and inappropriate behaviour would help. I argued that while it was good thinking, the reaction has to be in scale with the offence, which is as big as we know it to be but bigger than what our reaction to it would suggest. Let me explain.
Whenever I speak to people about poverty or corruption or racism I say that you can’t simply erase a problem by looking at the surface of it. One needs to look after the cause and the cause of the cause and the cause of that and then positive results will look after themselves. Usually it is right to say that the problem is a by-product of society, not a gross departure from it. Therefore it is elements in society and social conventions/systems that need changing.
In this case, one cannot simply say “stop touching peoples’ butts on the street!” and expect anything to happen. Our nemeses are mindset, history, compliance, conventions etc. I think that a billboard or an advert or a discussion among innocent people is largely an exercise in futility. You can never get the message across in that space/time to someone who still has the wrong attitude in 2014. I think you need more time and intimacy.
We often say, as black South Africans, that colonialism/white supremacy/apartheid etc acted against the interests of people of colour for about 350 years and that we can’t expect that 20 years of freedom (and I use that term very, very loosely) will reverse all of that. So how can silence, conversation or an advert remove an outlet of patriarchy?
To be clear, I don’t have an issue with the idea of billboards, but I don’t think they’d be that effective, especially with something so deep rooted. I just think it takes way more. It appears to me as a case where teaching is needed as the people have been told, or the why of the what. How many people are likely to pass a billboard or a street ad and exclaim in shock: “Oh my God, a billboard, now I can change my attitude towards women. This was all I needed?”
Also, people have to buy into it first. People buy into patriarchy because they were walked into it by convention and a social system that is blatantly patriarchal. So without the appropriate respect for women, a billboard advertising something with the use of female sexuality is acceptable. Or when you have no respect for a TV show, a billboard about it holds no interest to you. Also, it’s easy and comfy on our selfishness. We weren’t told: “OK, it’s time to be patriarchal,” we were trained and continue to be trained on a daily (hourly even?) basis. That is what has to happen in reverse to reverse the curse.
In any case, are we not undermining the intelligence of the people by assuming that they don’t know that it’s wrong to harass other humans? Are we saying that they have had no way of telling that the ‘harassees’ have misgivings about their actions? It would seem to me that this is case of arrogance, conformism, laziness, cowardice, opportunism, being normal and stupidity. Not ignorance.
Furthermore, we are currently being afforded the opportunity to look away from our weakness. We don’t have to confront the current level of noise on patriarchy because it just isn’t forceful. Even if one finds him/herself engaged in a conversation it is easy to wait a few days to convince yourself that it never happened or that it was just one person’s opinion. It is also the natural reaction to get defensive and feel hard done by when your stupidity is confronted, as I did in my conversation. You scapegoat feminism in the heat of trying to remove yourself from the blame.
In the aforementioned conversation (which led me to writing this,) I suggested that the troops over at www.stopstreetharassment.org were on the right track. They hold talks to teach people about street harassment. The other person in the conversation said that harassers who are poorer (street vendors, builders, domestic workers etc) would not have access to these talks. But what if we don’t go to them as vendors but as residents of their communities at the community school/hall? Or if we go to them while they are school kids or if teachers do it once or twice a week. Not just on street harassment but sexual respect and equality and more.
There are free workshops to teach people how to run businesses, free tertiary education, free religious services and workshops, free sport workshops and more. Do we not have the time or will for the safety and respect of humans?
In any event, I think the real question is the following: why is it that most of us (including yours truly) are only talking about this and speculating instead of doing things to cull the flow of bullshit?