Have you ever walked down the street or waited for a bus, when some random man demands: “You should smile”?
I used to be that polite girl who did smile. I smiled because the request was so random and unsettling that my reaction was immediate compliance. It’s like laughing at an offensive joke, the emotional hi-jacking usually happens so quickly that levity is usually one’s first response. Of course, afterwards, I always wondered: “Why did I participate in that?”
I eventually stopped smiling on command and instead, I frowned even more or I said things like “fuck off.” When men were met with this response, they got nasty about it. I’ve been called a bitch by disappointed street harassers more than I can count. Sometimes I get the petulant “Fine, you ugly anyway.” Sometimes they think they’re taking jabs at my orientation by calling me a dyke. As if my sexuality truly hinges on how enthusiastic I am about smiling in some idiot’s face.
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is an artist who literally puts a face on street harassment. In her collection of drawings called “Stop Telling Women to Smile”, she interviews women who have been on the receiving end of street harassment. She then photographs and draws their faces, adding direct quotes from her interview to the image. Fazlalizadeh doesn’t stop there. She takes it to the streets by pasting her drawing to buildings, sometimes in the areas where the women have experienced harassment.
Fazlalizadeh offers the valuable service of listening to women’s stories of day to day harassment and making those stories visible to the community. The faces and messages that she pastes on brick walls are much more than victims. These women are strong storytellers who remind other women that they’re not alone. Tatyana and her subjects also give warning to street harassers, reminding them that we’re not going to sit silently in the face of these violations.
Be aware that street harassment is not solely a heterosexual female problem. Members of the LGBTQ community also struggle with safety and comfort within public spaces. In some U.S. cities gays and transgenders must remain vigilant against verbal abuse and the threat of physical violence.
Also, if you think street harassers are limited to creepy strange men, think again. As of this year, New York City Police Department “will no longer confiscate unused condoms as evidence of prostitution by people suspected of being sex industry workers.” How policemen “decided” who exactly was a sex worker and who wasn’t, is still very unclear. But I imagine profiling of some kind was being used. It’s still harassment when a man interrogates you based on the amount of condoms you have in your purse.
If you want to learn more about street harassment and what to do about it, you need to check out Stop Street Harassment. If you’d like to see Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s work in detail, check out this video below.