Sorry guys, we do not owe you our time or conversation
A man approached me in the street recently. It began with a pair of sunglasses. It was sunny outside.
They caught his eye as I was walked past but it was, in fact, my face he had the biggest problem with.
‘Smillleeee’ he said. Earphones in, sunglasses on and phone twiddling I walked on. ‘Smile, you will look better! You look so sad’ he said. No, no this is just my face.
Focused on my phone’s playlist. Not sad. Just walking. And if I was sad, so what? I half smiled and nodded my head. It should have been enough.
Sometimes people notice you from media work and they just want to talk - no problem. But this wasn’t the case.
Our sunglasses are similar. He wants to talk about this. I say Goodbye and start walking.
He falls into step behind me it becomes a problem. The questions keep coming and I keep deflecting. I say I am meeting friends, and walk on.
He begins walking parallel to me as I head to my destination. He asks for my number. He asks for my address. He asks for my social media. He takes my hand rubs the inside of my palm with his index finger. By the way, he is smiling. I am not.
This would be the point where an expletive would not be out of the question, but this is the very moment so awkward and unexpected that reactions, and reactions to those reactions, are sparring off in one’s mind. I yanked my hand back and walked into the nearest shop.
It was a mild and brief encounter and it was nothing compared to what many women face daily. People like that are just weird; said a chorus of friends, don’t give it a second thought. Others understood why it made me angry. Should I have been more aggressive? Safety is always paramount. There’s a peculiar guilt associated with stories like this because there was no verbal abuse and no physical altercation. It divides women who discuss it. By burrowing into a shield of anti-awareness such a situation could easily be dismissed as nothing.
Much more alarming versions of similar tales poured out of some female friends following this incident but many were not comfortable enough to include them here. Male friends pointed out quickly, ‘Oi, it’s not all men. ‘. No, it’s not. But it is too many.
We shouldn’t discount it, it happens. And it builds. And each time it happens a renewed confidence is given to the person intruding.
It’s the seemingly unimportant, low-level irritations like this that snowball. They feed the general undercurrents of sexism and exploitative behavior towards women as emphasised at the moment by the Everyday Sexism project, which now has over 140,000 followers on twitter and thousands of reports by women of all ages worldwide.
Similarly the Stop Telling Women to Smile street art project is making its way around the globe. In 2012 Brooklyn based artist Tatyana Fazlalizdeh founded it as ‘a way of speaking back to guys who were unwelcome, unwanted, aggressive and assertive and really make you feel harassed’, Fazlalizdeh says in a video on her website.
She now travels cities across the US talking to women about their experiences of street harassment and asking how they would like to respond to harassers. The personal portrait’s sketched by Fazlalizdeh each have a quote illuminating the woman’s experience beneath the image. They are plastered on walls and exist in the streets where the harassment happened. They are copied and pasted in new cities as the project grows. ‘‘My outfit is not an invitation’ says one. ‘I’m not here for you’ says another. ‘Women do not owe you our time or conversation.’ It’s not. We aren’t. We don’t.