Taking back the city: The feminist campaign to reclaim Scotland’s public space
Hollaback! Edinburgh is the local branch of an international network of activists campaigning to raise awareness around street harassment, one of the most common and yet least legislated against forms of gender-based violence. In practical terms, we’re fighting the current inequalities which see school girls receiving sexual comments from strangers, which see women unable to go to bars and clubs without being intimately groped, and which see individuals from the lesbian, gay and transgender community targeted with threatening and demeaning abuse on a daily basis. We recently conducted a survey amongst 12-25 year olds in Edinburgh, detailing their experiences of street harassment, and published the results in a report titled ‘Because They Know They Can Get Away With It’. The survey closed on March 8th, International Women’s Day, and reading through the results stressed just how much we still live in a culture in which women’s liberties are restricted.
The truths revealed by the survey were bleak: young people, largely women, writing of how they have been followed, wolf whistled at, pushed, or been the targets of public masturbation. They described how they felt angry, and vulnerable, and powerless to stop it. As a way to negotiate their safety, young women were changing how they behave – 80% avoiding eye contact, over 70% avoiding certain places, and over 50% avoiding going at certain times. The picture painted is of a map of Edinburgh on which young people are unable to walk down certain streets, unable to venture out at certain times, restricted so much that they cannot even look about them freely, for fear of whom their eyes may connect with. If we wish to live in a society where young people can be whoever they want to be – and aspire to achieve the greatest heights they wish – then we first need to make sure that they can leave their front door at any time of their choosing, and walk down the street with their head held high, not looking at their feet under threat of harassment.
Our report tells us that one of the most crucial obstacles against this is the widespread cultural acceptance of street harassment. Again and again participants told us that despite feeling scared and humiliated, they couldn’t speak out against the harassment they experienced. There is a cultural acceptance of this harassment – young women are told to ‘take it as a compliment’ or to just ‘let it go’ as ‘lad banter’. In order to combat this, we need to widen the debate from discussing whether or not street harassment is a compliment, to also asking ourselves whether or not we are comfortable with eighty per cent of young women being harassed on the street. When girls as young as twelve are telling us that Street Harassment is making the threat of sexual violence very real, and that they feel voiceless and powerless in the face of it, we all need to start paying attention.
Young people in Scotland aged sixteen and seventeen have just been given the right to vote in the referendum on Scottish Independence in 2014. Now, more than ever, it is important for young people to be encouraged to find their own voices and express their opinions, to have a stake in shaping what Scotland’s future should look like. Yet, how can they do that if they cannot even speak out about day to day experiences which frighten, anger, or just plain frustrate them? We live in a culture where female student debaters are heckled and told to get back in the kitchen, where women who speak out in the public eye receive threats, often of sexual violence. Not only, then, must women walk tightropes between safety and danger on the streets, we must also face the same threats when we speak out in person, or write online.
In the face of such claustrophobic misogyny, which we constantly battle against just for the right to be who we are, Hollaback! seeks to provide a space for individuals to literally holler back against a culture which silences them. Through our social media, website, and events – which range from harassment free club nights to empowering workshops – we tell young people that we have their back. By helping them find their voices we are encouraging them to stand up for what they believe in, and to use those beliefs to bring about the changes which our society desperately needs.