I love big cities. As an extremely extroverted person, I love the hustle and bustle, the noises and smells (although some smells I could go without). The energy I get from being around other people is unparalleled. Seeing so many individuals in one place reminds me of the wonderful differences and similarities between us all. But in moving to D.C. for the summer, I was reminded of the one aspect I absolutely cannot stand: catcalls.
The first incident happened not even 24 hours after arriving in D.C. As I walked down H Street in D.C.’s Chinatown, a man sitting on the street corner yelled, “Hey sexy, salaam alaikum!” I was baffled. Not only did this man think he could get my attention by using religion, he ironically used the wrong religion. For a second, my Sikh advocacy training kicked in and I wanted to turn around and educate the man on who a Sikh is and what we look like. But then I thought that I didn’t want to engage the man that had just objectified me in the middle of a busy street in D.C. with zero complaints from anyone around.
The second incident, albeit not a catcall, reminded me of the limited freedom that I may have compared to my male counterparts. After visiting some friends and colleagues that were in town one night, I started to get up for my walk home. They were at a hotel not even half a mile from my apartment, so when one of them asked me if I was really about to walk home, I answered, “Of course.” However, after minutes of discussion and urging, I got in a cab and paid a few bucks to get home safely, because they were not sure if that would have happened otherwise. I knew that if it had been a man that they were sending home instead, the conversation would not have occurred.
I know this isn’t unique to D.C. because I experienced it in Manhattan last summer and I hear similar complaints from other friends around the world. There is something to be said about the loss of intimacy in a bigger city that allows men to feel that they have the ability, or that it’s even appropriate, to comment on a woman’s appearance without any backlash. Projects have been started recently, most notably one in New York, that challenge the notion that a woman’s appearance is up for commentary.
Yet, it’s still troublesome that when I say goodnight to my friends, I make sure they text me once they get home safely, and actually start to worry as the minutes tick by before I get a text. What about how after living here for only one week, I already knew that I had to walk a longer route home to avoid a group of men that always sits at the corner near my apartment? Or that, once the sun goes down, it’s essentially a given that I will either not leave my apartment or someone will have to go with me? Our culture has taught women to be almost paranoid about the extent to which their safety is threatened.
However, it’s more important to target the actual culture, rather than putting Band-Aids on the situation. For example, shortening Welcome Week at Michigan isn’t an appropriate solution to the high sexual assault rates on campus, just like telling all women to walk a different route home or just stay at home at night will not end the objectification and harassment that many of us face on the streets of big cities, and even at home in Ann Arbor.
Rather than raising daughters to be fearful or cautious of what men can or will do to her, why don’t we ask sons to treat their sisters with more respect? Rather than continuing to play the blame game, we should teach equality and justice, value and self-worth. Teaching love over fear has always been more powerful, and it will get us much farther, too.
Harleen Kaur can be reached at email@example.com.