The Women’s Center at North Seattle College joined in celebrating April 12-18th as International Anti-Street Harassment week. As a member of the Women’s Center I can attest that our goals for the week were to raise awareness of:
– What street harassment is (it’s never a compliment, it’s always unwanted attention);
– The incredibly high prevalence of harassment (approximately 65%-99% of women and up to 50% of LGBTQ men experience harassment);
– The damaging effects to women and men (victims of harassment dress differently to decrease unwanted attention and tend to avoid public spaces).
At North Seattle College, it’s common for the students to greet the Women’s Center’s events with tepid, lukewarm, and distracted enthusiasm. It’s understandable. They’re dealing with midterms, professors, finals, family, tuition, and a plethora of other life hurtles that can distract any student. The difference, however, from the student body’s reaction to the Women’s Center’s Anti-Street Harassment celebration was visible, institutionally supported, and stood as a glaring example of the unspoken prevalence and strength of existing misogyny in US college campus culture.
Part of our campaign to raise awareness included hanging art-advocacy posters by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. The posters promoted messages of women’s safety, liberation, and self-empowerment, while artfully demanding respect and resisting objectification by utilizing direct messages. “My outfit is not an invitation”, “women are not outside for your entertainment”, “stop telling women to smile” and “you are not entitled to my space” were some of the most common slogans. The posters were hung all over campus—in the halls, on bulletin boards, in the student center, on restroom doors, and on windows. The mass papering of campus didn’t last long—the NSC population rejected the posters swiftly.
After a single day on display, campus security removed a handful of posters on the basis of “improper posting”. Security claimed that our positive-message posters were in violation of the campus posting-policy because the sponsoring department’s name wasn’t visible. We agreed that we had made a mistake and quickly re-printed and re-posted the images. Yet, while re-posting it was noticeable how absent our anti-street harassment posters were. Security wasn’t the only one taking the posters down around campus.
After a second day on display security notified the Women’s Center that the posting policy was now changing and would include location restrictions such as no posting on doors, windows, in bathroom, or on pillars—coincidentally all of the places that we had put our anti-street harassment posters. The only institutionally acceptable place to hang our empowering posters were on designated bulletin boards—you know, under the heaping piles of dated “roommate wanted,” “textbooks for sale” posters. The important message about anti-street harassment would be drowned out.
Perhaps that meant victory by institutional standards. The images demanding female liberation and safety were now completely out of all-male spaces like restrooms where they arguably could have done the most work changing attitudes of could-be harassers, out of common spaces so as not to spark dialogue between students. Out of sight, out of mind.
Yet, that wasn’t the end of the campus backlash. Besides for the impromptu changes to the posting policy, several posters were defaced with handwritten messages such as “shut the fuck up and smile”. Furthermore, after only several days on campus most posters had been taken down. Out of the 60 posters posted more than half had been removed—by campus security and by students. Naïvely, our hope is that the posters were taken down because someone valued the message and wants to keep it with them. The more realistic assumption is that the students and administrators on the NSC campus actively rejected our anti-street harassment messages by eliminating the controversy, uncomfortable conversation, and problem they saw before them.
“You are not entitled to my space” started as an empowered battle cry from the Women’s Center on behalf of the women and men who receive unwanted attention, harassment, and assault, but was twisted and received as a vicious affront to the status quo. Between the student vandalizing, surprise-posting policy changes, and mass removal of the feminist posters the overarching ideology on campus was easily illuminated: don’t rock the boat.
The Anti-Street Harassment celebration by the Women’s Center crystalized two concepts about current campus harassment culture in my eyes:
1) The dominating attitude—acted on both conscious and unconscious levels—is to shield men (the majority of harassment perpetrators are men) from the possibility of encountering a message that directly, unapologetically confronts them in their personal space about aggression towards women. This allows men to continue acting without reflection or introspection or any hope of changing.
2) Images of self-empowered women voicing their boundaries and right to be respected are not easily integrated into a predominantly misogynistic society. Moreover, these specific images are needed all the more to help break from the systematic, unbridled marginalization and victimization of women.
Although these were not the lessons I had hoped to learn through the Women’s Center’s celebration of Anti-Street Harassment Week, they were nonetheless eye-opening. As summer approaches and students find themselves outdoors without homework tying them down, I hope that at least someone remembers the anti-harassment posters—even if they took it down—that makes them question something they say, something they do, or even something they think regarding women and their bodies.
For more information related to International Anti-Street Harassment Week visit Stop Street Harassment for resources, tool kits, and community discussions related to women’s safety in public spaces. To see the posters from this article (and perhaps to print and post some in your community to continue the conversation) visit Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s website.
Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not directly reflect the views of the Women’s Center or North Seattle College.