I Confronted All My Street Harassers

by Saira Khan

Last summer, for the first time in my life, I felt the urge to be violent. It started with a delivery man. I'd seen him every day for a week, and every day he blew a loud, wet kiss at me. While his infraction was minor, he came to represent every stranger who viewed my body as public property. I don’t know if it was a reaction to years of experiencing street harassment, or whether living in New York City had made me tougher and angrier. But that day I wanted to say something. I wanted to do something. I wanted to push him off his bicycle.

Women all over the world are choosing different ways to fight street harassment. A group in Mexico City called “Las Hijas de Violencia” shames street harassers with confetti guns and music. Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, a New York artist, took to the streets with her “Stop Telling Women to Smile” poster campaign, and a series of PSAs in India were released to bring awareness to the issue. The message is clear: street harassment needs to end.

I don’t remember the first time I was street harassed, but I do remember the first time I felt afraid of a man who was harassing me. It was a summer day in 2010, and the helplessness I felt is still palpable. A middle-aged man driving a minivan slowed down next to me as I walked along a street in a Baltimore suburb. He followed me for a block, whispering the obscene things he wanted to do to my body. It’s hard to explain the paralyzing fear you feel when someone comes thrashing into your comfort zone, destroying your sense of safety; there’s a sadness that follows the realization of how helpless you actually are. My 23-year-old self chose to concentrate on the stop sign at the end of the block and pretend I couldn’t hear the vile things he was saying.

In discussing casual racism, Nicole Chung wrote in The Toast: “When I think about the relative size and scope of microaggressions, I can’t help but feel ashamed of my inadequate responses. If these are just small offenses, not meant to wound, why can’t I ever manage to shut them down effectively, ensure they aren’t wielded again and again against others?”

I found myself relating to this, not just as a person of color, but also as a woman of color facing harassment everyday.I have experienced countless incidents of street harassment. Some didn't faze me, while others left me with trembling hands and a racing heart. Most catcalls, car honks, whistles, or follows made me hate myself. At one point, after moving to New York, I stopped running (my ultimate stress releaser), because of how anxious I felt about being followed. My inadequate responses to these harassers made me question what kind of feminist I was. I wondered how I could expect myself to fight for anything when I could barely stand up to strangers on the street. And the feelings that this harassment evoked in me were not uncommon.

According to 2014 survey of 4,900 women by the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations and the nonprofit group Hollaback!, 85 percent of women in the U.S. say they first experienced street harassment before the age of 17, and 50 percent of women under the age of 50 say they have been groped or fondled in the last year. The study found that street harassment can lead to feelings of anger, depression, fear, and low self-esteem. Many women also reported altering the way they dress, refusing to attend a social event, or choosing different modes of public transportation as a direct result of street harassment. This study serves to reaffirm everything I know to be true, and the numbers match up with the fact that every single woman I know says she has been street harassed.

I didn't get the opportunity to confront the delivery man last year. He rode off on his bicycle before I had the chance to react and, as fate would have it, I never saw him again. But I held onto the anger I felt. I talked about it with my friends and discussed it with my boyfriend. I tried to come up with ways to channel it into my writing, to turn it into something productive. I ultimately decided that the most productive and satisfying way to channel that anger was to direct it towards my harassers, to try to force them to see me as a woman and not an object.

When men stared at me on the train, I stared back. I reveled in watching them squirm and avoid eye contact. If I was feeling extra sassy, I’d lean into them and say "Now you know how it feels," before getting off the train.

When a man threatened to call the police because I was yelling at him for telling me he loved me, I pulled out my phone and said I'd do it myself, and that he could explain to the officers why he was harassing me in the first place.

A man literally ran away from me when, after he asked if I wanted to “see his dick,” I walked straight up to him and said yes.

When a stranger said he wanted to kiss me, in a turn of events where I became the harasser, I chased him for a half a block asking why. Another time, a man literally ran away from me when, after he asked if I wanted to “see his dick,” I walked straight up to him and said yes.

My confrontations didn't always end well. While on a train in Baltimore, I confronted an older man harassing a girl on her way to school. Instead of backing off, he directed his attention to me and spent the rest of the ride calling me ugly and jealous. His tirade forced me to back down and ignore him. My only consolation came at the end of the journey, when the young woman whispered "thank you" to me as I exited the train.

I've been called crazy and insane by the men I have confronted. And you know what? Maybe my behavior has been erratic. But I don’t hate myself anymore. I don’t beat myself up for not fighting back, and I don’t spend days or weeks thinking of things I should have said.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned in confronting street harassers is to follow my instincts. I often tell my friends that this is how I’m going to die. One day, I’ll pick a fight with the wrong harasser. I’ll threaten or undermine his masculinity and he’ll respond the only way he knows how: with violence. With that in mind, I don't confront every street harasser. There are still times I choose to walk away, and the choice in doing so is empowering.

The fear of experiencing violence at the hands of a man is all too real for women, but the alternative is living my life in fear of what may happen. I don’t know how I’m going to die, but I do know how I don’t want to live.

Street harassment is not inevitable. I have seen the impact responding to someone can have. If, in my mission to reclaim my personhood, I’ve deterred one man from harassing another woman on the street, then I’ve been more successful than I could ever imagine. Our bodies belong to us. We are not public property, and no one has the right to make us feel otherwise.