It has been almost a year since France outlawed cat-calling as part of a wider crackdown on street harassment, and French police have imposed close to 450 fines relating to sexist or degrading insults and comments.
Britain is now taking similar steps by classifying sexual harassment as a hate crime, encouraging women to report smaller incidents of misogynistic acts to increase their faith in the police to tackle gender-based violence.
Marlène Schiappa, France’s Equality Minister, has stated that the fines imposed by the police are proof that the law is working, arguing that the government measure is effective in decreasing street harassment rates.
Helen Voce, CEO of Nottingham Women’s Centre, where the classification change began, has also pointed out that by taking smaller instances of harassment more seriously, the police are establishing a rapport of trust between themselves and women.
It is an unfortunate reality that micro-aggressions towards women are trivialised and dismissed, not only by the authorities but by wider society.
Women are encouraged not to ‘dramatise’ their experiences, are told that there are far worse things to happen, that other women have it worse, or fear being seen as a helpless victim. This not only silences women’s experiences of street harassment such as cat-calling and other types of harassment, but sends an explicit message that this type of behaviour is benign and acceptable.
But all forms of harassment and aggression should be treated as serious and intolerable, not only because they are but because they can often escalate into fatal situations, such as that of Shana Grice. Grice reported her ex-boyfriend to the police five times, including allegations that he had entered into her house and watched her sleep, and had placed a tracking device in her car. Shortly after being fined by police for wasting their time, Grice was brutally killed by that same ex-boyfriend.
This is not an isolated situation. Nor is at an abnormal one.
But there’s no need to rely on statistics; anecdotal evidence is depressingly similar. I have been harassed on the street many times, including being followed and threatened with rape. Almost every one of my female friends has multiple similar stories, which we deal with by expressing mutual horror, fear and disgust, or laughing it off. It is more than normalised; it is a source of entertainment as we seek to find a coping mechanism that does not make us feel weak, helpless or like a hunted animal.
Treating the symptoms of harrassment
As much as outlawing forms of street harassment is necessary, I want to stress that these actions deal with mere symptoms of the problem, rather than root causes. People do not harass and cat call women simply because it is legal. If that were the case, we would have no incidents of domestic violence, no incidents of rape or sexual assault, because they are illegal.
The causes behind justifying such behaviour, aside from the extremely low conviction rates, stem from general sexist ideas about sex, gender and appropriate treatment of women, by men.
We unfortunately live in patriarchal societies that teach boys and girls that they have fundamental differences in value, and are expected to adhere to certain patterns of behaviour in order to be included in society.
Boys are conditioned into breath-taking levels of entitlement: they are entitled to women’s bodies, sexual gratification, emotional care and domestic labour being done on their behalf, by women.
A certain type of masculinity, one that values heterosexuality, a total lack of empathy and vulnerability, sexual prowess, physical and intellectual intimidation and risk taking behaviour, dominates what it means to ‘be a man’.
Girls are conditioned into equally break-taking levels of self-commodification: they are taught to care for others before themselves, to prioritise the needs of men, to value their body before their intellectual capacity or personality, and to adhere to an impossible standard of beauty in order to climb any measuring ladder of happiness and success.
We teach young boys to see young girls as property, we teach young girls to see themselves as property to be sold to men. It is no wonder that we have such a terrible problem with the treatment of women, from belittling and humiliating them in the street to enacting (sexual) violence on their bodies.
“It is far harder to address the root of the problem.”
Passing laws to end street harassment is a worthy cause. It is a symbolic victory of recognition and respect. But it is also the easiest thing a government can do to claim that it is a champion of women’s rights.
It is far harder to address the root of the problem: the fundamental way in which men and women are socialised, valued and treated. Combatting these things is a much harder, slower burning project.
It requires turning well-known and accepted institutions such as the government, education, healthcare, the labour market and more, upside down and inside out, to scrutinise every aspect of them, because gender is everywhere and inescapable.
It requires restricting and rebalancing power dynamics, eradicating systematic inequalities, giving greater weight to women’s voices and asking men to sacrifice some of the powers and privileges they enjoy.
It is essentially, a mammoth task that would require the cooperation of every single member of society. That is why it has never been done before.
So, celebrate this small victory as a much-needed step forward in the fight for increased women’s rights. But please bear in mind that small pebbles will only make small ripples in the pool of gender inequality; what we need is a tsunami.