Giving street harassers all the attention they want - and more

(Lauren Simkin Berke - For The Washington Post)
By Alison Stein Wellner
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 7, 2011; 2:23 PM

Was it possible that the shopkeeper had just complimented me on my nice eyes? Or - and this seemed more likely - had he really just complimented a different, lower part of my anatomy?

It was early on a steamy July morning, and I'd set out with friends to do some souvenir shopping in and around the souk in Marrakech. We soon fanned out, so I was alone as I idly examined a delicate glass mint tea set and clay tagines of all sizes and wondered whether I'd actually slide my feet into a pair of pointy-toed babouches once I was back home in the States. Then I spotted a table piled high with leather boxes in hues of orange, cobalt blue and purple - the kind of boxes that you might keep on your desk to hold stationery, pencils or paper clips. A beautiful souvenir that might actually be useful? I sped right over, stumbling just a bit on the hem of my black maxi dress.

I picked up a pencil case for a closer look. Just then, the shopkeeper appeared behind me.

"I can emboss your name on the box," he said in English.

I didn't respond to this offer, because I was flustered: I seemed to have backed into something. I twisted my neck this way and that, trying to catch sight of what I was brushing up against. Was it someone's shopping bag? Another table? But there was nothing behind me. Only the shopkeeper. Whose hands, I suddenly realized, I couldn't see.

I took a step sideways. The gentle pressure on my backside vanished.

I quickly walked away. I was pretty sure that I'd just been groped, but the touch had been so light. . . . Perhaps I was mistaken?

In my confusion, I'd hurried away in the wrong direction, so I reversed course, still lost in troubled thought. When I passed the leather store again, the shopkeeper fell into step beside me. "Come to the back of my store, I give you a special price," he said.

He also said I have a "very nice" bottom, although he used a less polite term. Or that's what I thought he said. He spoke English with a strong accent, and if you think about it, "eyes" and that other word I thought I heard do sound very similar. So I wasn't completely sure what had just happened. Had he just offered me a special price because of my very nice eyes? Or had I just been street harassed?

Street harassment is common the world over, and its variations are many: a catcall, a wolf whistle, a suggestive compliment, an obscene gesture - even, in extreme cases, an unwanted touch. It can be a mere nuisance, or it can be the prelude to a more dangerous incident. Either way, it's the sort of experience that makes many women wary of traveling on their own or venturing out alone on foreign streets.

But now, an anti-street-harassment movement has risen in response, an outgrowth of the 1980s anti-sexual harassment movement in the workplace. But while the latter gained prominence in the 1990s thanks to Anita Hill and movies such as "Disclosure," the anti-street harassment movement was slow in developing until the advent of blogging, social media and cellphones.

Now there's LASH, or London Against Street Harassment, which is crowdsourcing a Google map to track harassment incidents. There's a similar entity in Cairo called HarassMap. In the United States, there's Hollaback, an online forum where women can share their stories of street harassment, with blogs focused on New York, Washington, Chicago, Charleston, S.C., and Atlanta, among other U.S. cities. Internationally, there are Hollaback branches in Australia and Israel, and new sites are set to launch in Berlin and Buenos Aires. The latest addition is iHollaback, a cellphone application that allows women to share geocoded photos of street harassers. It's now available in the United States only, but the next step is a global rollout. The motto: If you can't slap 'em, snap 'em.

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