While I was walking down the street in Ecuador one day, a guy on a motorcycle slowed down beside me, reached out and grabbed my ass. As he did this, he lost his balance and his groceries spilled over onto the sidewalk in front of me. What he thought would be a smooth-sailing manoseo (groping) turned into an embarrassing train wreck for him. As he scrambled to pick his groceries up from the ground, he received a long and fierce lecture about my right to walk down the street in peace. In the midst of all this however, he must have picked up on my accent and assured me that this was “just how we greet people here.”
Was this guy actually throwing the cultural relativism argument at me? I told him I wasn’t stupid and that I knew groping strangers wasn’t an Ecuadorian way of greeting people, but he just shook his head and assured me that I should be flattered. He finished picking up his things, got back on his motorcycle and left.
Then I saw it – he left behind a bright red apple. It was right in front of me on the sidewalk just begging me to pick it up. So I did, and without thinking much about it, I did what any Canadian would do when someone forgets something: I gave it back to hi – by throwing it as hard as I could and striking him square in the back as he was driving away. He literally didn’t know what hit him. When he stopped a few meters away, pretty confused about what just happened, I yelled, “that’s how we greet people where I come from!”
Street harassment is a problem that happens everywhere, but this guy’s response got me thinking a lot about my position as an outsider and how the best way to resist street harassment in Ecuador is probably by supporting the awesome and creative women’s initiatives already happening in Latin America (which are way more effective and constructive than throwing apples).
In Matagalpa, Nicaragua, for example, the Red de Mujeres de Matagalpa (Women’s Network of Matagalpa) came up with a pretty ingenious way of responding to street harassment: By blowing a whistle and giving harassers red cards. Why? Because street harassment is foul play and you get kicked out of the game for it. The group posted an anti-street harassment kit on their Facebook page consisting of a red card, a whistle and some simple instructions: The next time a man harasses you, or you see another woman being harassed in public, (1) raise the red card, (2) loudly blow the whistle and (3) yell “Penalty for harassment!” The group acknowledges that it’s up to every woman to decide how they’re comfortable responding to street harassment, but there’s no doubt that this campaign is badass.
So badass, in fact, that it was picked up by an activist-feminist group in Cuenca Ecuador, En Cuenca Tambien Habemos Putas (In Cuenca We Are Sluts Too). Recognizing women’s different comfort levels and safety concerns about responding to street harassment, the group formed a team of referees, and one Friday night the group of fearless female refs took to the streets and painted it red. Written on the back of every red card was an explanation of the penalty and why contrary to popular belief, street harassment isn’t a compliment.
Getting that message across is no easy task. In fact it was the widely held misbelief of “women liking it” that started the campaign AcciónRespeto (ActionRespect) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. After collecting real life stories about harassment from women of all ages on their Facebook page, the group created a series of posters with direct quotations from the harassers of those stories. Below the quotation read the campaign’s slogan: “if reading it makes you uncomfortable, imagine listening to it.”
The campaign blew up after the governor of the City of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, blatantly defended street harassment during a radio interview in April, insisting that deep down every woman likes it: “Those who say they don’t or that it offends them, I don’t believe them at all. There’s nothing nicer than being told how pretty you are. Even if it’s accompanied with saying something rude like, I don’t know, saying what a nice ass you have – it’s all good.” He even went on to explain that it’s what foreign women in Argentina like most about Italian and Argentinean men – the way they catcall and look at woman. First of all, for someone who’s father is Italian and who’s partner is Argentinean, I find these kinds of generalizations about the men from these countries extremely offensive; second of all, if I had another apple, I think I could teach Macri a lesson on how much Canadian women like that shit.
The good news is that just like the outcry after the victim blaming from Toronto’s own Michael Sanguinetti that started the SlutWalk movement, Mayor Macri’s sexism only sparked more support for AcciónRespeto, which has now become a national campaign and international online community.