“Stop telling women to smile!” exclaimed Tatyana Fazlalizadeh in the face of street harassment, or at least, that’s what her project for street harassment is called.
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is an American New York based artist and activist, who uses street art as a way to protest against “gender based street harassment,” among many other causes. Other projects of hers include Get Angry and The Red Wall.
Fazlalizadeh’s art work for the Stop Telling Women to Smile project consists of portraits of real-life, every day women, whom she had interviewed photographed, and drawn, portrayed above a phrase that said women want to say to their harassers.
Some of these phrases include “Don’t call me baby,” “ My outfit is not an invitation,” “You are not entitled to my space,” and several others.
In a video on the Stop Telling Women to Smile project website, Fazlalizadeh explains, “ I started (the project) because I wanted to talk about my experiences with street harassment, it was my way of speaking back to my harassers.”
The project, which started in 2012 in Brooklyn, has now expanded to Paris and Mexico City, and is still on going.
“I try to put (my posters) wherever I can, because I realize street harassment doesn’t happen in one community, it doesn’t happen in one neighborhood, it happens everywhere,” said Fazlalizadeh in her video.
“Sexual harassers may have low self-esteem, or a desire to showcase their ego and manhood to their friends, however, there could be many other underlying causes, like if the harasser himself was harassed when he was younger,” said Resha Erheim, M.Ed, Personal Counselor at the American University in Dubai.
According to a US based study that was conducted by the non-profit organization Stop Street Harassment, “65% of all women had experienced street harassment … 23% had been sexually touched, 20% had been followed, and 9% had been forced to do something sexual. Among men, 25% had been street harassed (a higher percentage of LGBT-identified men than heterosexual men reported this)”
In the UAE, little to no information is provided on the exact number of sexual harassment and rape cases reported in the past few years.
However, out of 20 female Dubai residents interviewed, 18 reported being sexually harassed. The degree of harassment varied from “cat-calling” to stalking or un-wanted touching.
“I think people need to talk about street harassment more in this region,” said Nour (19), a student in the American University in Dubai (AUD) “ I feel like girls think its shameful to speak up about being harassed, even to their parents, and that’s an attitude we need to change, or else we will never solve the problem.”
“The problem is that if you’re walking in the street, and someone hits on you, you’re a coward if you walk away silently, and you’re a tramp if you talk back to them,” explained Stefanie (20), a student in the American University of Sharjah (AUS), “I think maybe the issue is with the social expectations set for girls, if we were all raised to believe that we had the right to wear and behave however way we want, without being pestered, then together we can slowly solve the issue.”
“It’s starting to feel like being whistled at or yelled at when walking in the streets is inevitable,” said Hala (19), a student at AUD. “What’s worse is that it became something we accept, even though it makes us uncomfortable,” she continued.
“Last week, I came back to the dorms at night after a party and I was wearing a dress. The walk from my car to the dorms gate felt like I was walking through hell because of all the terrible things that some guys said to me,” said Mayar (21), another AUD student.
When shown Fazlalizadeh’s Stop Telling Women to Smile street art, the students greeted it with positivity.
“I really respect how she gave all those women a voice,” said Stefanie, “ I think she understood that most of the time its very hard to speak up against your harassers, and I think this will empower girls to stand up for themselves.”
Other students felt that Fazlalizadeh’s project only gave a female face to street harassment.
“I know it’s hard to believe, but men get harassed on the streets as well, and sometimes very brutally,” said Abdallah (21) an AUD student, “ In some parts of middle east, a man might get beaten up for walking or speaking in a way that is not ‘manly.’”
“ It’s almost 2016, we shouldn’t still have to put up with the slurs and gestures we put up with. We need to be treated like humans, not objects, and restricting our own freedom is not the answer to that problem,” said Mayar.