“Hi, miss!” a construction worker hollered as I walked by.
“Hi, ate,” called out a high school boy as I passed him and his friends.
“Masarap yan, ah (That’s delicious),” commented another construction worker as I made my way home holding a box of doughnuts.
“Lady in red…” an old guy crooned as soon as I, wearing a red shirt, was within earshot.
No, I’m not Miss Congeniality. And no, I didn’t know those people. But that didn’t stop them from trying to catch my attention in a most inappropriate way.
So what did I do when those incidents happened? Every single time I ignored them and kept walking, irritation brewing inside me and ripping a piece of my faith in humanity to shreds. Still, I was silent. Still, I kept my mouth shut.
There was no way I should have been afraid to call those people out on their behavior. Not when hours after the incidents I still felt uncomfortable in my own skin. But I didn’t call them out, and that makes me feel sicker about the matter. At the back of my head, there’s the niggling thought: “Did I do something? What did I look like for that to have happened?” In the end, for some reason, the blame rests, not on the perpetrator, but on the victim.
Catcalling or street harassment is more common than one thinks. Ask any girl and she has probably experienced being catcalled at least once. But I can hear people saying: It’s not like those guys touched you or anything. Right. They didn’t. But so what? And these aren’t the only manifestations of harassment that women and girls have to endure on a daily basis. Just a few weeks ago, news of a taxi driver raping a girl in Baguio City broke out. Sure, that’s the extreme, but sexual harassment is a spectrum that unfortunately happens to one too many women and girls each day. They are constantly aware of the danger, and don’t know when the line between “harmless” catcalls can cross into the dangerous terrain of actual physical contact.
I wish I could say that it was just a matter of being attractive, of standing out, of wearing clothes that are “too revealing,” of wearing makeup that says “she’s asking for attention.” But that’s not it. These things happen just as well to women and girls wearing unflattering outfits and minimal (if at all) makeup. We could be shrinking into ourselves to avoid attention, and still get a wolf whistle directed our way.
Women and girls deserve to feel beautiful in their own skins, to wear whatever they want and accessorize however they want so they can feel confident about themselves. Sadly, the world we live in teaches us to be wary not only of being beautiful, but also of being female, because apparently that’s all the excuse men and boys need to let loose a catcall. And many think this sort of behavior is harmless!
I’ve heard of women standing up for themselves in such situations, and kudos to them. But for this problem to be stamped out, it’s going to take a lot more than that. It’s important to teach girls not to be afraid to call out guys who harass them, and, even more important, to teach guys to respect girls. In an ideal world, harassment would be frowned on and men would think twice before behaving inappropriately. The longstanding passiveness of women and girls is reinforced by the misguided idea that if you’re harassed, it is somehow your fault. Harassment is never the victim’s fault. Both men and women need to know this, to know better than to blame the victim, and to keep silent when being subjected to it.
We could spend less time teaching girls how not to be victims if we could also teach boys how not to be perpetrators. It’s time catcalling, street harassment, and all kinds of less blatant sexual harassment stopped being viewed as normal and inoffensive. It’s time we stopped thinking that they are forms of flattery, because they’re not.
This is me finally speaking up.
Charis Faith T. Areola, 19, is a student of the University of the Philippines Baguio.