‘I Have Been Followed By Men In Multiple Countries In 4 Continents’

By Scherezade Siobhan:

Editor’s Note: The Cake, in collaboration with The Mira Project, brings to you a series of powerful stories on gender, violence, street harassment and mental health by women, woman-identified and gender non-conforming folks, of various ages and nationalities. Head here to know more about The Mira Project.

When I was 8 or 9, I remember running with my heart in my mouth as a middle-aged lurker followed me from my house to my friend’s. It was the day my grandmother had returned home from America and I was deathly eager to show off my new summer dress to my playing companions in the neighborhood. I remember that blisteringly hot afternoon of June with damaging accuracy. At 32 years old, I may forget what I wore the day before but I will never forget what I wore that day and how badly I wanted to dissolve into a puddle of sweat, become invisible long after I had escaped his tobacco-fueled ambuscade. Nearly 10 years later, I watched my younger sister come home after school and slump into the couch like a deflated parachute. She was panting heavily but refused eye contact and my nerves itched in synaptic misfires. I knew something similar had happened as much as I didn’t want to believe it.

I am a social scientist who makes a living studying, researching and sometimes modifying behaviours in my field of work. I come across women from all walks of life and sometimes the unfortunate yet common threat that binds all their narratives is frequent exposure to and experience with street harassment.

We have all gone through it in some measure. We battle the corrosive mix of anger and helplessness when it happens. We watch as ridiculously intrusive self-help gurus write thinkpieces on how to talk to women with their headphones on. We wallow in self-defeat, we punch holes in walls (at least metaphorically) and sometimes we make the firm choice of confronting it. Yet, as women, we have rarely, if ever, been known to inhabit a street corner without a possibility – whether distant or immediate – of being harassed, teased or gawked at for no specific reason other than our being women.

If I accept the derision, I am a slut. If I deny it, I am a bitch. This is the razor-toothed binary of inequality. Our bodies become battlegrounds in the line of this fire. I have lived in different cities, different countries and somehow every isolated stretch of pavement has incited and stretched at the same polarities of fury and fear. The greater challenge with street harassment is its commonness which nearly renders it acceptable. It extends beyond cultures and geographies because I have been followed in 4 continents and in multiple countries. It is a devastating intersectionality because as a woman of colour, the abusiveness very quickly takes on racial slurs if you opt out of being its victim.

As a psychologist, I engage with women and witness in them a range of behaviours that seem dangerously close to PTSD relapses when they speak about specific instances of street harassment. In India, girls are socially coerced to think that this is part and parcel of growing up, that having a body automatically commodifies their existence or even worse — it makes them complicit in their own persecution. We are constantly being expelled from the physicality of ownership — whether our bodies, our tongues, our sentiments, our emotions or even our reactions. When it is not enough to gnaw at the contours of our movement through a given space — any given space — they further aim to deepen the injury by trying to dictate how we should respond to it — ”You could just smile! No big deal! I am just being nice to you, why are you being such a bitch? Can’t you take a compliment?!

As women, we need to share our stories. As vociferously and as loudly as possible. We need to take space. Without apologies. As a survivor & a psychologist, I have learned that the sometimes the most enduring form of healing happens through shared catharsis.

It is frightening to live surrounded by minds and bodies that keep disappearing under this psychological and even physical debris. To share is the ability to secure our own stories and not allow them to be scattered at the mercy of our traumas. This was the conception of a global, cross-cultural dialogue: The Mira Project.

Soon, we gained momentum and received support as well as stories from Cairo to Edinburgh going through Delhi, Chicago, Chennai, Hong Kong, Singapore, London, Seattle, Oakland, LA, New York City, Mexico City, Mauritius, Mumbai and more. Thereafter, I created The Mira Collective where women and women-identified folks were encouraged to use arts, storytelling and personal inquiry to uncloak and dismantle gendered violence in general and street harassment in particular. As part of this initiative we welcome poetry, essays, self-care advice, rants, selfie art projects, and anything that can forge a cohesive community-building through exchange without critique. We have created a digital platform that not only engenders trust and a format for cleansing as well as healing, it also boldly engages with men and men-identified folks to step up, listen and internalize the struggles we delineate. Along with this, we also aim to give back, and for every story we share, we ask the writer to present us with a wish-list, a tangible or intangible need which can be fulfilled by our readers and those who choose to engage with the work we are doing. We publish the wish-list from the participating “Mira” and ask the people who are reading it, to help them strike off an item from the wish-list.

The event of any violence bolsters the perpetrator if the bystander refuses to extend a helping hand. As we collect and curate the voices of “Miras” from every corner of the world, we want people of every gender identification to read, discuss and engage with us in finding a long-term and sustainable solution to a chronic predicament. In short, my offered key is: Stop harassing women. It is as simple and as doable as that. However, in a world that is still orbiting around male fragility and capitalistic hegemony that profit from colonizing women’s bodies through institutionalized patriarchy, we have some miles to cover before we can free ourselves entirely.

This is the foundation stone for our interactive digital engagement in challenging and disassembling gendered violence as a practice and as a community.

Let’s begin to structure an end of a societal evil that has morphed into a multi-headed hydra and now demands a consistent and fearless slaying.