Above all, effective harassment prevention is about undermining a culture of silence that allows so many men to imagine that they are “good guys”, even as they are complicit in the abuse and mistreatment of their coworkers, sisters, daughters, and female friends.
WomenSpeak talks to Debra Providence about her poem While Walking Up Back Street
WS: It feels like this poem is based on a real incident that happened to you? What made you decide to write about it?
DP : Yes it is based on a real incident, of course, without the blood and mucas. I decided to write about it because in the moment I felt reduced to a piece of my anatomy. I felt that the comments in essence placed more value on the breasts than the person and writing the poem was my way of confronting being objectified in that way.
WS: Your poem is quite graphic, even violent. Do you feel that sexual harassment in public spaces is a kind of violence against women?
DP: The incident triggered a strong emotional response and I wanted to write in a way that captured my state of mind. On a level I do feel that sexual harrassment, street or office, is a kind of violence. It strips away your wholeness as a person, your layers and complexities and reduces you to a thing. It is something women experience every day, but that doesn’t make it any less disconcerting when it happens, for me at least.
Added to this is the fact that I have a keen interest in the Science Fiction and Speculative (SF) ficiton genres which often depticts the human body as being capable of trancsending pre-given limitations.I love the “What if?” aspect of SF. I thought, what if the persona could give the copper exactly what he asked, and at the same time demonstrate that she was more than what he asked? How would that be received? What if the logical extremes of objectification of the female body were to be realised in that moment, dredging the graphic undertones of the request? He only wanted the breasts. My emotional response to the incident, coupled with an interest in SF, produced the poem.
WS: Well, unlike the heroine in the poem, women can’t actually cut off body parts when men hurl crude comments towards us. Is street harassment something women just have to endure or is there something that can be done/ should be done about it?
DP: What can be done? I could say that teaching younger children the importance of mutual respect for individuals, boys and girls might help. Public sensitivity campaigns, perhaps. I could say that women could train their boys to be more repsectful of girls and later women (not to put all of the responsibility at the feet of mothers). But to be honest, I am a bit of a pessimist here. The thing is, if by making a crude comment a guy feels that he is paying a woman a compliment then you see where changing these attitudes could be challenging. I am not sure what can be done. Perhaps a DNA re-write that erases the instinct to objectify, (falling back into SF again). Women would just have to keep tackling these experiences with the sense that they are more than whatever body part is “praised” while walking in these streets.
Debra Providence is a Vincentian writer, teacher, Sci Fi nerd and lover of Caribbean literature. You can read more of her poems at her blog Writing “D” at http://debraprovidence.wordpress.com/
While walking up Back Street
in green tank, yellow mesh T-shirt
and loose blue jeans
a copper hails me from
the other side of the street,
“Ras, eh ras,
Dem breast dey look real sweet,
Ah just want dem breast dey,
Just de breast, you hear ras?”
And me, being the polite
And obliging lady
My parents brought
me up to be,
Coolly took out a
(cause you never know
when a copper is gonna
ask for your boobs)
And commenced to saw
One at a time,
And I took them
Over to the copper,
Shock and awe
Manifesting in his
Narrow copper face
As he stares at
two perfect melons
sitting in gouts of
blood and mucus
In my outstretched hands
(well what did he expect?
I was never one for silicone meself)
I took the melons and stuffed them into
Narrow copper’s pockets
And wiping my hands on my
Loose fitting jeans
Walked all the way up to
new melons sprouting
through red patches
on my green tank top
and yellow mesh shirt,
Screw You Copper!
Read an Interview with the author Debra Providence.
Street harassment was taken to an all time new level with an incident that lasted about a little over a month in 1989. After this incident, I changed my entire perspective on the way in which I say Good Morning.
On my way to Secretarial College, just another Monday morning walking up Frederick Street with my sister, a tall lanky man, many years my senior, told me Good Morning with a pleasant and seemingly genuine smile. I looked directly at him and acknowledged his gaze and replied with a smile – “Good Morning”. I was 17, never had a boyfriend and was none the wiser that one Good Morning could cause a fear to haunt me for a very long time.
He waited for me the following day, and the day after that, just to say Good Morning. Of course, I stopped replying or crossed the street whenever I saw him. To my surprise I noticed that he began waiting higher up the street every morning, and realized he would eventually figure out where my school was. I began to take different routes. This sometimes made me late for school. So I would have to get up even earlier on mornings to take a taxi to avoid this idiot. In retrospect, I really don’t remember ever telling anyone. I did not want to worry my already nervous mother, for fear of her promptly having me attend a similar school closer to home. I was grown, damn it, and I loved being in Port of Spain.
Unfortunately many days I just did not wake up early enough and the shortest route to school, up Frederick Street, was my only option. This man began to follow me up Frederick Street at least 2 or 3 times a week.
The thought of this man following me now consumed my entire morning. Which street to take? Where would he be if I walked here? When and at what point on Frederick Street would be best to cross the street? Then he started getting closer. Mind you, he said nothing to me, just followed me. Until one day, after about 3 weeks, I looked back and there he was, right behind me walking into the school yard! I could hardly breathe. Without even realizing it, I was now running inside the school compound. I was lucky that the Principal saw what was happening and stopped him immediately. She saw me quickly getting in the door – I guess my body language spoke the fear that I could not speak.
After the Principal made him leave, she asked me what was going on and who he was. I told her I didn’t know him and gave her the entire story. She alerted our security guard. For months after, I changed my route to school. I didn’t even know which street I would take to get to school till after I got out the taxi.
The incidents lessened but completely ended when I saw the said older man on Carnival Monday by the Savannah, and told my brother that this was the man following me to school. This man towered me. I am tall and he seemed a good foot taller that me, though in retrospect fear makes you envision a person to be bigger than they really are. My half-brother, half my height proceeded to spew curse words at the coward and without a fight he said sorry and I never saw him again.
Of course had I told my brother months earlier, I might have been spared so much grief. It’s good to speak up and to speak sooner rather than later. If that man had ever gotten me alone, I am not sure what he would have done. But thankfully, it was not worse.
To this day, if a stranger says Good Morning, I never look him in his eyes and I never smile. But I will, 9 out of 10 times, still say Good Morning.
Every day I am out of my house I have to deal with vile creepy men (VCM). (I am thus very much of a hermit) However, this is my neighbourhood, my life, my islands. I’ve never grown used to it.It has formed the way I deal with males, and is deeply connected to the experience of being a Caribbean female.
In Grenada I’ve had the opportunity to experience a slightly different culture to Trinidad’s in the realm of the VCM. Now there are those who will make a comment, but they usually attempt to be charming (absolutely failing), or they hide in the corner and shoo shoo among their friends. The Grenadians tend to be a touch less bold, less racist, and try to be charming (sigh. no. just. no).
As you might guess, the VCM tends to appear out of nowhere, when you least expect it. They are everywhere. Their eyes are everywhere. Especially in small villages, it’s more pronounced. Now I must make the distinction between pure small village “maco” behaviour and the VCM. They are connected socio-culturally, but I won’t get into that.
This is simply my experience on the street. Every. Bloody. Day.
I stand at the side of the road, the bus terminal, anywhere, and I see them driving along, walking, heads turning, eyes moving. Gross gross gross gross. SPIT. HISS. Excuse me while I vomit a little with a smile on my face. They tend to get aggressive when you do not respond and I’m not really up for that drama. Unfortunately my face does not lie and they pick up my revulsion. Oops.
I am sorry men. I know some of you are not VCMs, and I know many very charming wonderful humans and these idiots put you to shame. Oh well.
Tracey Chan is a Trinidadian multimedia visual artist living in Grenada. She is Co-Curator of WOMA “Women Make Art” – an exhibition featuring exclusively women artists, organized in commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day. Learn more about Tracey on her website at http://www.traceychan.com/
Simone Leid, Founder of The WomenSpeak Project talks to the ladies of “The Box” about Street Harassment in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean
Write your own Anti-Street Harassment Manifesto and post it to WomenSpeak and your own blog, facebook and twitpic. Use the hashtag #antistreetharassmentday