From as early as 11 we learn that we can be referred to more names than our own; ‘smallie’, ‘fat cunt’, ‘reds’, ‘darkie’, ‘yuh feel yuh too nice awa’, ‘ugly’, ‘yuh have a man’. Some say it’s okay because ‘dais we the culture’; the way men learn to use their words as stones, to throw, expect them to skip and land softly through their hot breath and laser eyes. The first time my 11 year old student told me a man said nasty things to her while she was in uniform, my blood curdled, stuck to the roof of my skin, I felt the words escape me. A couple boys in the class asked why she cared, and said “dais normal thing miss, dais we culture, plus them girls like it.” It took everything out of me to respond in love and understanding, these boys were also 11 and 12 years old.
The Caribbean has done a great job at plastering the word ‘Culture’ over uncomfortable and traumatic experiences. The normalising of Street Harassment is not home to the Caribbean but rather every piece of the world. Recently we honored Anti-Street Harassment Week with a Global Virtual event hosted by Chalkback and Gender At Work, it featured poets and speakers from all backgrounds, and organisations from across the world who work tirelessly to bring about awareness and create safe spaces for persons to share their stories.
There is a common thread that strings all these stories and experiences together and that is a type of masculinity that hooks on to whatever that catches the eye, it leeches itself unto words and spit and comes out whenever the host feels to express. “Street Harassment has nothing to do with social class because even homeless men do it too, it is the privilege of the patriarchy” shared the representative from Catcalls of Capetown. It was then I realized the type of impact unhealthy manhood has. It does not require one to have excessive wealth or live in a comfortable space, but rather the belief that women’s bodies are for enjoyment and to serve everyone but themselves. According to a survey conducted by Stop Street Harassment, 3 out 4 women have been verbally harassed.
Catcalling is the unsolicited commenting or whistling by someone to a passerby. It can be verbal or non-verbal. These comments are often sexually charged and serves as a gateway to other types of sexual assault. In some cases, men can become violent when their comment goes unanswered. I remember being grabbed in City Gate (a harbour for commuters to access public transport) because I did not respond to a man who shouted ‘ah love yuh bress.”
The thing is, Caribbean people become reluctant to report such offences because of the normalization of catcalling and the lack of laws to protect women, girls and sexual minorities. This form of silencing feeds into establishing the culture for what it is; an unsafe and harmful place to exist and function. Imagine having to pack extra clothes in your bag just to avoid being seen for the outline of your body and still being harrassed. This goes to show that street harassment has nothing to do with your clothing or whatever areas are visible to the eye; it has to do with men who believe their thoughts and feelings come first and have every right to be expressed in the manner that it does. It has to do with unhealthy masculinity and the belief that entitlement is their right and that male power means dominance over people’s bodies.
In Trinidad and Tobago, there is still a lot of unlearning to do. A couple of months ago I was lucky to learn of Catcalls of UWI, a community organization developed by IGDS Ignite, inspired by the Life in Leggings Movement that originated in Barbados and Catcalls of NYC. They bring about awareness to combat Gender Based Violence and Street Harassment while creating a safe space for persons who have had such experiences. The sobering thing is that there is support and groups who are doing necessary work to bring about a new normal.
Dismantling ‘de culture’ takes a lot of unlearning and hard work. Many persons believe that catcalling serves as some form of compliment and in turn, use it to validate themselves. It’s unfortunate how damaging a ‘culture’ can be. Catcalling/Street Harassment isn’t a joke. It is uncomfortable, it is unsafe, it is damaging.