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Street Harassment, Not 'Compliments'

 IPS 13 June 2019

Men say they are giving compliments, or even claim they are being poetic. But to many women, cheeky or lewd remarks from men on the street are a form of harassment which is offensive, insulting and even denigrating. (974 Words) - By Marcela Valente

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Woman being harassed by a crew of workers on a Buenos Aires street. Photo: Juan Moseinco /IPS

In the face of this apparent misunderstanding, the international movement Hollaback!, founded in the United States in 2005 to end street harassment, has created a virtual network for women who feel assaulted in public spaces by men's words.

Hollaback!, which sees this kind of abuse as unacceptable, has established branches in different cities in North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia, including Buenos Aires, where as in Mexico City the local branch has added the name ¡Atrévete! (Dare!).

The goal of Hollaback! - a slang term which means "back atcha" according to the coordinator of the Buenos Aires branch, Inti María Tidball-Binz - is to raise awareness about this invisible violence against girls and women.

Victims of harassment share their experiences in blogs that act as a social network. They show on a map where the aggression took place, and in some cities they even post a photo snapped of the harasser.

The common aim of these social blogs is to stop this timeworn practice of pseudo-gallantry and show it as it is perceived by women: as gender violence.

But reactions in Buenos Aires to Tidball-Binz's simple attempt to spread the campaign have shown that the initiative is considerably less trivial and more subversive than it appears at first glance.

Women began to testify not only to the coarse words they were subjected to in the streets, but also to being groped by the strangers who pursued them with pseudo-flattery.

Controversy flared up in the magazine El Guardián, where columnist Juan Terranova ridiculed the campaign, saying abortion, human trafficking and "help for battered women" were more urgent issues.

Terranova concluded his article with foul language, saying if he met Tidball-Binz he would "bust her argument with 'pijazos'" or "cock-blows" ("pija" means "cock" in many Spanish-speaking countries). In the original version of the text, published later on his blog, Terranova had written "bust her arse with 'pijazos'."

Hollaback! asked the editor of El Guardián to force Terranova to apologise, and urged companies to withdraw their advertising from the magazine. Fiat, the Italian car-maker, and Lacoste, the French sportswear company, did so immediately.

Terranova proffered a half-hearted apology, but Hollaback! did not accept it, so the magazine sacked the columnist. He then complained about censorship, claiming he was a victim of suppression of freedom of speech.

IPS spoke with two feminist intellectuals who shed light on the practice of cheeky or lewd comments known in Spanish as "piropos", which have long since ceased to be a courteous tradition, evolving instead into an increasingly violent form of male chauvinism or "sexist domination," they said.

"The 'piropo' has a gender identity and is based on a stereotyped hierarchy of roles. There is an active agent who makes the comment, and a passive person who receives it," said philosopher and Buenos Aires city lawmaker Diana Maffia.

Maffia said that in general the street 'piropo' "is not designed to flatter a woman, to make her feel good; on the contrary it is a violent, misogynist, degrading, disagreeable phrase, uttered to mark out men's territory, or property.

"They tell us how they see us, what they think of us, front and back, and what they would do to us, and that is a form of harassment under cover of a supposed compliment," said the legislator, who belongs to the centre-left Civic Coalition.

Maffia recalled that in mid-2010, a city lawmaker proposed celebrating a "Piropo" Day, to coincide with the World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, because in his view it is a custom that has fallen into disuse and is worth restoring.

Legislator Enzo Pagani, whose proposal won support from other parties, regards the "piropo" as "part of popular culture" and "a material, artistic and spiritual expression transmitted and created by the people."

According to Maffia, the proposal was unsuccessful because what is understood today by a "piropo" on the streets is far more akin to sexist violence in symbolic form, than to literature.

"I would make you pyjamas out of saliva," one man said to a 14-year-old girl as she walked past. Now an adult, who asked to remain anonymous, she told IPS she still remembers how shocking it was.

Another woman said she gradually changed the way she dressed in order to avoid having to listen to the rude comments men made when she wore more attractive or revealing clothes.

Even when the "piropo" is not perceived by women as an attack, it embodies a relationship of dominance and submission. "We women need to analyse why our self-esteem depends on how we are seen by men," she said.

Another feminist intellectual who responded to Terranova's column was writer and essayist Elsa Drucaroff, who defended the right to censor a man who says publicly that to silence a woman's arguments, he would rape her.

However, the author of "La Patria de las Mujeres" (The Women's Motherland) said sexist remarks made in the streets cannot be penalised. "What are needed are awareness-raising campaigns, in order to win allies," she told IPS.

Drucaroff agreed with Hollaback!'s encouragement of women not to remain silent but to respond to harassment. "Girls must be taught to answer back, to mock and ridicule the men that humiliate them.

"'Piropos' in Buenos Aires are becoming increasingly aggressive, perhaps because men are troubled by the increasing prominence of women's roles. They need to be shown that women are not weak, and that if they attack them they may make fools of themselves."

In the controversy, Tidball-Binz made the distinction between harmless "piropos" and harassment. "If it feels like harassment, that's what it is," she said.

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