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11th March 2015

A global guide to sexual harassment

With less and less tolerance in the UK to sexual harassment, Lauren Howells describes her experience of the same problem in Argentina

Manchester’s recent Reclaim the Night march was declared the biggest ever in the UK. Around 2000 people stood up against sexual violence, victim blaming and women feeling unsafe on our streets. As a feminist, I find myself up against a variety of arguments as to why this kind of demonstration is pointless and unnecessary. One of the most repeated phrases is, “people in less developed countries have it so much worse. You’re a white, middle-class woman in a Western society. What do you have to complain about?”

Taking part in this event forced me to reflect on that question. I spent a semester of my year abroad living and studying in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the attitude towards women there is very different from what we’re used to here. It is a country where “no” means “yes,” and “I’m really not interested,” means “please, try harder to convince me.”

Take catcalling, for example. While there’s no doubt that catcalling in the UK can be intimidating, most of us are probably most accustomed to a quick wolf whistle or a gruff “smile, love!” In Argentina, a catcall can range anywhere from “hey, pretty lady,” to: “Ay, mama! If I grabbed you I’d give you another baby!” (an example from the posters everywhere by the protest group ‘Acción Respeto’). Threats of rape and violence are almost part and parcel of the culture of ‘piropos’, as catcalling is called in this part of the world. Strangely, despite this dark undercurrent of contempt for women, this phenomenon is so deeply ingrained that it is largely accepted as “just part of the culture.” I was even told by one local woman that if she wasn’t catcalled on her journey from one place to the next, she felt disappointed or as though she looked unattractive that day.

Does this then mean that we should be grateful to live in a country where this kind of publically misogynistic and threatening attitude is becoming less and less acceptable? Should we be thankful that we are more likely to hear “nice tits” than “we’re going to rape you” from a group of men as we walk past them? Probably. But this does not make this kind of behaviour any more excusable. Culture is a relevant concept, and for as long as I feel intimidated walking in a public area in my developed, Western country, I’ll continue to march for initiatives like Reclaim the Night, in solidarity with women all over the world who want to walk down the street without being congratulated for their achievements in growing normal body parts.

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