The streets have always been a space in which my feet could move freely, but the rest of my being refrains from existing with comfort. Out on the street, where my consciousness of my physical form is heightened, I feel as if my skin and hair are too squeaky clean for the dust that settles on the pavements. Out there, my sense of ownership over my own body wavers. For a while, I couldn’t comprehend why it was that I found it tremendously tiring to breathe easy on the streets. Whenever a pair of strange eyes gazed at my body, I could always sense them, tracing my movement – occasionally, a hand would follow, assaulting me with an unwelcome touch.
For as long as I can recall, street harassment has been a recurring experience in all my years of growing up. Regretfully, it has become a norm within our society; a form of degradation that all females have had to go through at some point in their lives.
I recall my first experience as clearly as if it were a visual diary entry from 18 years ago. I could just flip the pages in my mind, and I would arrive at this particular memory. Sometimes I revisit it with anger, but most times with sadness and disgust.
I was in Penampang, Kota Kinabalu, paying my mum’s family a visit. I remember wearing a yellow dress, walking towards one of the malls in KK city with my mother. The street outside the mall was crowded, and as we walked through the massive crowd, I felt a hand reach into my dress, lightly touching the back of my thigh. It happened so quickly that the only thing I could do was look back. I saw a man wearing a grey shirt, looking back at me and smiling before walking away. I was confused as to what had just transpired, so I tugged on my mother’s hand and said, “Mama, someone touched me.” She frantically asked me who it was, but he had disappeared into the crowd, taking away any chance of confrontation. After that she kept a close eye on me, holding my small hand in hers, tightly. I was only four years old.
Despite being from a religious family practicing Buddhism, my father enrolled me into an all-girls Anglican Mission school in the middle of the city of Kuching. Across the road from my school was an all-boys Anglican Mission school. Every morning, I would buy breakfast at the small row of shops in front of the school, which everyone frequented. It was a social space where the boys and girls from both sides of the road would mingle. The boys, deprived of female company at other times, would try anything and everything to get the girls’ attention.
I was not excluded from these attempts as I made my way to buy my usual egg burger breakfast. The hoodie I wore over my pinafore would always be used as a shield, to cover my face and body, to block out unwanted attention. I would avoid eye contact, hoping that the boys would not look me in the face. I think that that may have been the point at which I stopped looking people in the eye when I walk past strangers on the street, or on campus. Till now, I still find comfort in putting my head down, hugging my chest and looking elsewhere whenever a stranger walks by.
My struggle with street harassment became more strenuous as I grew into a young adult. It was a cycle. I would always feel good, at first, whenever I got ready to go out, but the feel-good vibes never lasted long enough for me to muster enough confidence to swallow the cat-calls I would later experience and spit them back out without feeling affected. This specific cycle of emotions would repeat itself every time I went out.
The hike in my self-esteem in my early twenties did not change this, either. It did not stop the white male tourists at Changkat from grabbing me with their grubby hands, nor did it stop the businessmen in suits at Pavilion from ogling and making inappropriate gestures over their 6pm drinks.
I find myself at a crossroads at times like these; interestingly, now that I am in my twenties, I’ve never felt more woman, more comfortable in my own skin than ever, as I’ve begun to really deal with the criticisms from people surrounding my weight gain. I’ve never felt more beautiful on the inside, nor as at ease with my womanhood. But finding myself expecting to be harassed when I go out has steadily chipped away at the still fragile self-esteem that I have tried so hard to cultivate within myself for the past couple of years.
Embracing my womanhood and being able to feel beautiful on the inside was something I never imagined I could achieve. Years of skinny and fat shaming at the hands of relatives (and sometimes, friends) due to my constantly changing body and fluctuating weight, made me think it was impossible to ever feel this way.
It angers me, then, that I cannot feel the same sense of self-assurance and self-love when dealing with harassment.
Street harassment forcibly takes me away from a state of strength and bravery birthed from self-respect. It’s paradoxical that I would reach a state in my life where I would be able to finally be ‘okay’ with who I am, and at the same time feel so much disgust with the way I am treated and have no ability to stand up for myself. I don’t have enough strength, yet, to aggressively turn away and call out harassment. I would be so proud of the softness of my skin, showing it off in sleeveless dresses and flowing tops, but desperately try to cover myself up with my own arms when I walk past a group of men on the streets.
I started going out with my now-boyfriend two years ago. In this time, he has taught me a lot about loving myself and it has slowly helped to rebuild my confidence. I’ve noticed considerable changes in the way I view myself and how I deal with everyday harassment. One thing I have found curious since I started going out with him, however, is this: I have noticed a pattern in the way men address me and approach me on the streets. Whenever I am with my boyfriend in public, no one seems to pay much attention to me. Even when there are instances where men would steal glances or stare inappropriately, it would not go much further than that. But this isn’t the case when I’m alone; as a lone woman on the streets, I find myself back at square one: having to deal with that all-too-familiar sense of smallness and discomfort, creeping all over my skin and seeping into my body.
I have realised, sadly, that the reason men don’t harass me when I’m with my boyfriend owes simply to his presence alone.
His existence naturally commands more respect than mine, by virtue of him being male. It shields me from any unwanted jeering, cat-calls and attempts at touching or grabbing. The only reason I have escaped harassment while in his presence is because men see other men as equals, and their female counterparts as only supplements. It is intriguing yet sickening to finally grasp the fact that men would not antagonise each other over a woman because they hold their own kind with equal regard. It is a traditional and normative way of processing the way in which one treats the other. Men have always taken on the role of the protector, as women are traditionally viewed as fragile and vulnerable.
My boyfriend is seen as my protector, and men don’t harass me on the streets just because I am at his side. Men don’t harass me in his presence because I’m no longer vulnerable; there is a possibility that my boyfriend would confront anyone who dares to harass me. Without him, I’m defenceless; an easy target that is up for grabs.
I wish to live in a world where I would not need my partner’s presence to shield me from the predatory eyes and voices that hoot and jeer from the sidewalk.
Harassers know this: as a lone, unprotected woman, my vulnerability is their advantage over me. The more vulnerable I feel, the more likely I am to shrink and react defensively at the discomfort I feel when they harass me. This reaction gives them power. It is satisfaction to them that the words that come out of their mouths have the power to affect me and incite fear in me. It allows them to gain influence over me, through an exchange which I am forced into entirely against my will.
The experiences I have had with street harassment have taught me that it has never been about my age, my appearance, my body or the way I dress. Power dynamics exist on the streets. Harassers have somehow won the ability to dictate the amount of respect that is due to us. These depraved individuals are able to exert undue control over how we feel with their filthy mouths and hands, which are sterilised whenever our society excuses their behaviour. The only evidence they leave behind is the ‘dirt’ we feel all over our skin and their foul breath that leaves a stench on our faces.
We have been kept silent for too long, while we have grown to expect this appalling treatment whenever we step out of our houses. We have been kept silent by the voices that seek to displace us from the streets. It is time to call them out. It is time we showed them with the noise we make on the streets, in protest, that cat-calling is a broken tune, meaningless and frail, that should be drowned out for good. It’s time we take back our spot on the streets.