Alison Roh Park was 14 the first time she saw a man masturbating across from her on the subway. Another time, a group of drunk white men obstructed her path outside a bar and asked for a massage. “Men will explicitly refer to me as ‘China Doll,’ ‘Dragon Lady,’ ‘Chinita,’ ‘Miss Chin,’ even ‘Sushi!’ ” says Park, a 29-year-old Korean American activist from Queens, NY, who is part of a growing movement against street harassment. Thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and GPS technology, she and women around the globe are finding new ways of speaking up and talking back.
Holla Back DC! (hollabackdc.wordpress.com) is a regional crowd-sourced blog that is part of an international network of websites aiming to bring attention to street harassment via mobile technology, including cellphone photos, maps locating harassment in real time and video of perpetrators in action.
The Hollaback movement was started in 2005 in New York City, but chapters now exist everywhere from Argentina to Croatia, and Israel to India. Chai Shenoy and Shannon Lynberg founded the DC blog in 2009, “simply as an online platform where people could talk about something so systemic and pervasive,” Shenoy said.
The DC site posts about experiences ranging from uncomfortable glances to public masturbation and being followed home. According to Shenoy, many of the women feel powerless to respond immediately to the harassment or are too stunned to speak up before the moment has passed. Even in the moment, “a comment or reaction can escalate the attention and sometimes lead to actual assault, or in some circumstances, murder,” she said. “It can be very healing to have outlets to talk about it.” The site has posted several instances in which the victim of street harassment, an accompanying partner or helpful bystander fought back and was killed by the aggressor.
In the case of repeated harassment, as street harassment often is, emotional distress can build up, according to Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. “It’s a totally normal human reaction to start to wonder if you’ve done something wrong, or if you somehow deserve this attention or are inadvertently asking for it,” Yeung said. “When we start talking, we find that our stories are actually not unique — all women have encountered harassment. We aren’t bad individuals but rather we live in a society that permits this treatment of women.”
For Asian American and Pacific Islander women, talking about these experiences online can be particularly liberating, said Shenoy, who is of South Asian descent. “API gender-based violence isn’t talked about a lot,” she said, because of cultural guilt and shame. “Plus, there is an API cultural norm of not talking about sex with elders. So if sexual assault happens — these are tough conversations to have with parents or siblings. So some just don’t.”
For immigrant communities, there are often language barriers, confidentiality concerns and fear of the law when it comes to coming forward about harassment. However, Shenoy believes even fewer resources exist for those who straddle both American and Asian communities and face unique challenges: “How do you educate people who grew up with Asian culture but also American values?”
Immigrant parents often do not know what it is like to grow up as a racial minority and can’t fully relate to the racism that their children grow up with in the United States, Yeung said. Mainstream youth-serving organizations and after-school programs often aren’t culturally competent, Yeung said, particularly with Asian cultures.
API women in particular are often targeted with verbal harassment in a combination of stereotypical racism and sexism. “Asian American women are told they work in massage parlors or are sex workers,” Shenoy said. “They are demoralized and don’t know what to do.” Also common are comments that commodify and objectify the bodies of women of color as “exotic.”
Park views all of her experiences with misogyny and sexism as racialized ones. “As a girl, (these experiences) taught me that anyone has the right to obstruct my public space, comment on my body, clothes or appearance, and that those were my value,” she said.
The Hollaback movement is working hard to change this reality for women and LGBT individuals, as well as the wider perception that street harassment is a small issue, a mere annoyance. “It’s important to take a stance on something that may feel so small in the grand scheme of things,” said Shenoy, who is also a staff attorney at WEAVE (Women Empowered Against Violence) representing sexual assault survivors. “If we don’t speak up about our safety walking down the street or taking the Metro, then we allow others to take that space away from us. We need to reclaim space.”
Technology has opened the door for progress in that goal, providing “the ability to break down barriers and share experiences, to address gender-based violence by sending a mass text,” Shenoy said. Technology gives people what she calls a “voice of agency” to “holler back,” or vocalize a response, in the face of harassment. “Part of ‘hollering back’ is to find empowerment in a situation that can feel like someone took away your dignity.”
The DC group hopes to grow offline and has held workshops and outreach events as well as partnered with local self-defense organizations. They also recently performed a community audit, asking people on the street about when and where they feel safest in public.
This August, Shenoy launched Collective Action for Safe Spaces (collectiveactiondc.org), an umbrella organization against public sexual harassment that includes the Holla Back DC! blog and Right- Rides, a service set to launch next year offering free late-night rides home for women and LGBT individuals from volunteers driving a fleet of donated Zipcars.
Yeung is encouraged by the movement’s growth. “In this environment, it’s hard enough for young Asian American women to find their own authentic sexuality,” Yeung said. “Having people put their stuff on you, literally and figuratively, while you’re just going about your life makes it all the more difficult.”
And it gives ladies all the more reason to holla back.
Nicole Wong is a contributing editor at Hyphen.
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