The Line Between a Compliment and a Catcall

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“Hey mzungu— nice size!” “jagala mzungu, I love you!” “I want your white pussy!”

These are only a few of the comments that I have received as a woman walking down the street in Kampala. Unfortunately, comments such as these are common whether in Kampala, or in my home of Montreal, Canada. In fact, in every country that I have travelled to, I have been street harassed. Simply put, street harassment happens in every culture, in every part of the world. Whether the street harassment focuses on my skin colour, my dress, or my body, it is aggressive, persistent, and frequent— no matter where I am in the world. Street harassers, just like rapists and wife-beaters, come from all races and classes. While women’s inequality remains a universal phenomenon, so too will street harassment.

Street harassment is not about complimenting someone that you find attractive, or being flirty—  it is about power. As author and feminist Marty Langlan writes, if street harassment were about getting dates than it would be “a spectacularly unsuccessful strategy”. Instead, catcalling is about asserting dominance over someone— in this case, gender-based dominance. As Phaedra Starling writes in her article, Schrodinger’s Rapist: “a man who ignores a woman’s NO in a non-sexual setting is more likely to ignore NO in a sexual setting, as well. If you pursue a conversation when she’s tried to cut it off, you send a message. It is that your desire to speak trumps her right to be left alone. And each of those messages indicates that you believe your desires are a legitimate reason to override her rights.”

Street harassment is a dangerous symptom of the gender equality gap. Catcall culture, whether in Canada or Uganda, stems from a dis-recognition of the fundamental humanity of women. It is only when women are viewed as sexual objects that men feel entitled enough to a woman’s body to yell profane things or to grab her without permission while she is walking on the street.

In an environment where a person could potentially be put in danger for addressing her street harassers head-on, how can women push back in a way that is safe yet effective? Surely everyone has the right to walk down the street without fear of being objectified. Many women choose to ignore the offensive comments in order to not exacerbate the situation further. When men try to grab my hair or whisper that they want to marry me while I walk home, I treat them like the sun; do not look directly at them— protect yourself by moving out of harm’s way. This method, while potentially preventing an escalated situation from getting worse, does nothing to stop the harasser in question, or the culture of catcalling in general.

The burden of protecting oneself from street harassment should not fall onto the shoulders of the women being catcalled. Not only is it ineffective, but it puts women at a continued risk from the men harassing her. To stay silent when being catcalled only perpetuates the situation further— yet to be aggressive puts women at risk for more violence. In truth, catcalling culture cannot be fought from one side alone. If men are to stop catcalling, then the culture that teaches men to feel entitled over a woman’s body must first be addressed. Catcalling is only a symptom of a sexist society, and to fight against street harassment without addressing the wider issue of gender inequality is to treat a cancer with advil.

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Hosanna Galea, WOUGNET Intern, Gender and ICT Policy

Student, McGill University, Canada