A campaign looking to end street harassment in cities, Hollaback launched in 11 cities on 7th December, 2011, including Chennai in India, Dusseldorf in Deutschland, Bogota in Columbia, Santiago in Chile and other cities in North America.
“It was very upsetting and back then, very shameful. I didn’t know who to talk to about this. I mean, from my point of view, I was doing nothing wrong or provocative. But my presence was enough to incite this activity toward me. I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it, because it seemed to me that there were a lot of women like me, suffering silently.”
This is an excerpt of Shruthi’s story. There are many such similar stories on the recently launched Hollaback Chennai website. It doesn’t matter that each one is more horrifying than the other. What is truly horrifying is how accustomed we have become to these stories and experiences as a part of our daily grind.
“We’re culturally conditioned to believe that street sexual harassment is something that women have to live with. Sexual harassment needs and deserves a zero-tolerance approach. Every young girl and woman should feel safe walking on the roads of this city, at all times of the day or night, and irrespective of what she is wearing”, said Anupama Srinivasan, Project Director who is leading the Hollaback! campaign in Chennai from earlier this month.
The Hollaback campaign has built a strong platform for taking action and raising awareness in fighting back street sexual harassment for 6 years now since its inception in 2005. It all began in New York City, a city much known for its violent and discriminatory attitude against women. Since then women have been blogging about their street harassment experiences and via mobile phones reporting live incidents that get located on a Google map.
Despite the boom in access to technology and social media playing critical roles in revolutions for social change across the world, Hollaback was initiated in India only in the beginning of this year. It’s a volunteer driven platform that has now been taken on by a team at Prajnya, a non-profit organization in Chennai, who are deeply committed to working online and offline to end street harassment in the city.
General consensus, otherwise, considers Chennai as “safer” by parameters of violence that are relatively on the lower end of the scale i.e. less direct and physical.
Urvashi Sarkar, who studied a year in the Asian College of Journalism and came back to do late night shifts in the Hindu in the capital said, “Staring is more rampant there. Groping and stuff can happen. Although no one tried to get fresh me, it never struck me as a particularly safe city”.
Tiamongla V.P. did her four years of Bachelors in Fashion Design in Chennai. “There were three occasions in which a guy was wanking off to us – on the street, beach and outside our apartment. Forget shorts, one couldn’t wear 3/4th lengths unless they wanted to be ogled and drooled at. But I was never touched or groped”.
Priyanka Bhatara, who studied in NIFT and worked in an export house in Chennai, feels the city as a whole is very conservative, although it has become more cosmopolitan in the recent years. She says, “It totally depends on the way you dress. If you’re wearing jeans, then they perceive you as someone of a loose character. But whatever they do, it’s usually from a distance. And as far as mobility after dark is concerned, it is safer. I have taken a cab at 1 in the morning”.
Hamsini Ravi, Project Coordinator of Hollaback! Chennai gives us an alternate view.“We always say very proudly that Chennai is very safe for women compared to other cities in India. And while this is true, the city still remains silent on issues of gender violence, including street harassment. What we tend to forget is that preventing sexual harassment in the long run is about changing our attitudes , not just ensuring physical safety. This is where we come in with Hollaback!”
While Hollaback! Delhi and Chandigarh have mostly rallied discussions on social networking platforms, Hollaback! Mumbai was seen participating in blogs and social networking sites to mobilize youth online and on ground through candle light marches and street plays in the recent Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandez murder case, as well as a campaign against street harassment in Mumbai.
How does Pranjya plan to do things differently?
The team has already conducted their first workshop at Stella Maris College, where they asked students to draw up a picture of ‘street sexual harassment’ as they saw and understood it. Says Ravi, “Workshops in colleges/ workplaces are something of an unexplored zone. So far, the two workshops have been a great catharsis, and brave starting points of something bigger- interventions even. Best of all, they made the girls sit up and realise that ‘harmless’ manifestations like whistling at girls on the road were actually harassment, and could lead to something bigger.”
Srinivasan adds, “The other thing we’re definitely doing is getting a Tamil version of the website up, so that language doesn’t become a barrier and prevent someone from sharing their experience. After all, sexual harassment cuts across age, class, caste, so we do want to make sure we are a safe, non-judgemental forum, accessible to women of all backgrounds.”
While the Hollaback campaign in North America has evolved in using mobile technology to live report and crowd source incidents of harassment, the iPhone application is yet to be made available in India.
“In the coming months, there might be apps compatible with other phones as well. Once this happens, we will launch a new surge of publicity, especially for young working professionals who commute to work or work night shifts. Obviously, this category of women will have greater access to this technology”, admits Srinivasan.