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Tag Archives: Writer: Herinza Syadza

Catcalling, and How It Destroyed My Self-Esteem

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I was born and bred in a rural village in Sarawak, and I grew up a fun-loving, cheerful girl around my family. I loved wearing bright coloured shirts and skirts. Whatever my mother dressed me up in, I was the lively young girl who filled the family photo albums. I liked to mingle around, I was extroverted and open to comments about myself and my body.

I hit puberty in early May 2005. Since it happened, I began to hate my body – I resented my own physical assests and how they attracted unwanted attention, comments and stares that made me uncomfortable. I gained weight and my body matured at a quicker rate than my peers. Every part of me felt as if it were turning into something immodest; something that men could objectify. I hated how I came to feel like a piece of flesh in their eyes, instead of a human being.

“Eeee sombongnya!” (“Ugh, why so cold?”) 

“Ingat cantik sangatlah tu!” (“You think you’re so pretty?”) 

“Hek eleh, perasan orang nak kat dia! Pui!” (“You think you’re so desirable? Don’t flatter yourself!”)

It was not easy to deal with, when I had to walk back and forth to my school. I lived in a small village, and my primary school was in a neighbouring village. I had to walk 20-30 minutes to school. Those 20-30 minutes were hell to me.

“Hi cik adik, nak pergi mana tu?” (“Hey, little girl, where are you off to?”)

“Hi sayang, sini dulu” (“Hey, darling, why don’t you come over here for a minute?”) 

“Weee wit, pandang sini!” (*wolf-whistles* “Look over here!”) 

My first experience with catcalling was when the boys at the roadside would whistle and smirk at me. They  would ask me where I was going and if they could “accompany” me. They looked at me as if I were a toy, something to play with and have fun with, for their little amusement. I felt uneasy with being treated that way. These boys, they spent all their time hanging around by the roadside, catcalling girls – and to conceal their wounded egos when their catcalls went unreplied, they would cuss you. What do catcallers actually want? The question remains in my mind, till today.

I used to think I hated them because they didn’t go to school; but soon I realised that I hated them because no one told them that it was wrong to catcall; because they got away with it as if they had every right to do it, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, despite how filthy it made me feel.  The mak cik, pak cik, nenek and atuk who watched as it happened to me did nothing to intervene. Some of them even advised me to wear clothing that was less revealing. What is possibly less revealing that a school uniform and a tudung?

I usually went home feeling quite defeated; having to suppress my anger towards these boys and how they treated me, because it was a small matter to the people around me. The mak cik and pak cik would suggest that I just smile and let it pass. They would say things like:

“Dah dara, ada peminat.” (“You’re at that age, you’ve got admirers!”) 

“Terima je lah, orang puji tu.” (“Learn how to take a compliment!”) 

Most people don’t understand the trouble with this: catcalls are not flattering words. It made me feel painfully uneasy because I was being “evaluated” in the way that I appeared to them. Every step I took along the road – because there was no alternative road home – felt like a walking path to hell; long and painful.

All this obscenity continued while I battled with the rage inside of me; the deep sense of injustice I felt every day as I endured what felt like an assault on my dignity. They way they would stare at me like a stripper on a pole; as if nothing covered my body – while I was in my school uniform. No revealing clothes, and even a scarf on my head, yet they made me feel as if I were stripped bare.

The whistling, kissing sounds that came from roadside; some would be quick to dismiss these experiences, but the scars they left on me are very real. I hate walking, even now as a working adult, and I would rather fork out money (that could be better spent) on an Uber than to walk to my workplace.

“Look at how plump she is!”

“Yummy girl!”

“Look here, girl!”

I hate walking alone, anywhere. I wouldn’t even hold my chin up while walking, because I would rather not look into the faces of people I pass by, in case one of those faces had on it a smirk that felt all too familiar. I have become so cautious of people around me and what would they say about how I look. My self-esteem has been all but destroyed.

Here we ponder: Why do people consider catcalling a compliment?

A good article by Emma Nobel explains why catcalling is no compliment. It makes women feel less safe, and this is something that I can relate to. When I get catcalled, I feel anxious about what the perpetrator might do to me, and I know that I am not alone in feeling this way.  I would love to have enough courage to combat catcalling like this girl here does, attacking her catcallers’ egos as an act of resistance to reclaim her self-esteem.

I still feel anxious whenever I walk alone, even in the daytime. I wouldn’t go out alone, especially if I risk having to pass through a group of men. Some would say that #notallmen engage in this behaviour, but it only takes a few to leave an impact on your entire life.

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