By Samira Lourdi

In October 2014, a video of a woman who walked the streets of New York City and encountered ten hours of sexual harassment and catcalling went viral. The only thing more worrisome than the video were the comments that came subsequently. Some said she was “asking for it” and others thought she should feel lucky. This demonstrates anew that some people just don’t get it – but it’s not just that. According to some opinions, girls shouldn’t get upset about getting catcalled: It’s just a compliment, so why get upset? While I think that it’s okay that some girls don’t mind getting catcalled, I have to disagree with their reasoning. It’s not a compliment – at least that’s not the aim of the people who do it.

The belief that women should enjoy catcalling is pretty strange because it entails that catcalling is done with respect. It suggests that when a guy sees a girl walking down the street and shouts something at her about her body, he’s doing so because he thinks it will make her day better. That’s utterly false.

Let us take a specific example: catcalling in France. In recent times, street harassment of women in France has been highlighted as a huge problem. In a study done in France in 2015, 100% of the women surveyed said they had experienced harassment in the streets. Feminists in France are doing their best to tackle and lessen the amount of sexual harassment that happens in public spaces.

Walking home alone (late) at night is still a problem for women. Walking home alone in France (late) at night is still a problem for me. I am French and I live in a suburb of the Paris region. I came back to France after spending a few years abroad, notably in the United Kingdom.

I say good-bye to my friends before starting my walk home and my friends tell me to be wary in the dimly lit street. Shortly afterwards, a stranger approaches me attempting to get my attention. I don’t turn around, I keep walking as the man hurls insults after me. Feeling anxious and fearful, I finally get to my front door with the feeling of relief. Thanks to this man, I now don’t feel as safe in ‘my’ area as I did previously. I manage to stay very calm and collected. Why is it always the victim in these situations who must remain rational and in control?  Whenever I step out of my front door, I wear invisible blinkers as a survival strategy. The defensive bubble around me protects me from intrusive behaviour. Without this bubble I wouldn’t be able to face going outside alone. It’s a coping mechanism. It means not making eye contact with people, dressing in a manner that does not stand out from the crowd, etc. This is sad as it restricts women’s freedom. This happens to me. This happens to many women, to many girls – every day.

The following short film by French director Maxime Gaudet is called ‘Au bout de la rue’ (Down the Road). It’s a brief video that helps people understand how women feel when they find themselves walking alone on the street at night.

But why is this happening in France more than in the UK? This is not an issue specific to France. Yet, my French friends who have spent time in the UK and British friends currently living in France are all in agreement that the issue is much worse in my country.

Could it just be that attitudes towards women are different in France than they are in the UK? In the Global Gender Gap Report 2013 rankings, the UK came 18th and France came in 45th, Germany 14th and Spain 17th, so at a sociopolitical/policy level at least, France is way behind its neighbours. I’m not suggesting that street harassment is a thing of the past in the UK but the work of campaigns such as Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates has opened up a dialogue. In the UK, catcalling and other forms of street harassment can no longer be passed off as a little bit of fun or just lads having a laugh.

France is starting to have this conversation too. In May 2012, a Ministry for Women’s Rights was created in France. The French government has a responsibility to ensure that its citizens are safe – all its citizens.


How to have difficult conversations

This post was originally published as a Change Maker newsletter in January 2016. If you would like to subscribe to the newsletter for regular updates and tips, take the Change Maker pledge here!

Effective conversations

Conversation is key to making change. With useful dialogue about gender equality, we can start to alter beliefs, clarify misconceptions, and change society.

It is also tricky: sometimes, we focus too much on getting our points across and neglect to listen and understand the person we talk to. Conversations can become painful and ineffective.

What makes an effective conversation? Is it when we influence someone’s ideas? Or is it a mutual and respectful exchange of knowledge and ideas? How do we achieve it?

1. Opening up a dialogue

You’re with some friends and someone makes a sexist comment. What do you consider before you lurch into a conversation about their words? Perhaps think about your bandwidth for dialogue: do you have enough time and energy to exchange ideas? It’s okay if you don’t – we are not obliged to advocate when we don’t feel safe or comfortable doing so. We might also feel ill-equipped with facts. But there are other ways to put across our opinions besides rattling off stats and quoting studies. Even a simple “I feel uncomfortable with what you just said” can be useful in starting to call out casual sexism and other prejudices.
2. Acknowledging privilege 

Nathan W. Pyle / Via

We come from all walks of life, each carrying our own experiences and views. And what we say is affected by this. Even the well-worn “Just work harder!” retort that marginalised people often receive comes with its own baggage: privileged individuals have access to more opportunities, which might shape their beliefs about effort. Navigating this within ourselves is important. What do you tend to overlook or take for granted, and how does this harm effective dialogue?

3. Listening and responding

Effective conversations are not just about putting your points across, but also listening to others. So often we are so intent on bringing the other person to where we are, that we forget where they are.  One way to actively listen is to acknowledge other people’s ideas. This could be clarification (“What did you mean by…”), or you could allow them room to ask you questions and clarify their doubts. Active listening gives us the chance to engage with others collaboratively, and move the conversation forward.

4. Lather, rinse, repeat!

These conversations can be time-consuming and emotionally exhausting, especially if it is about challenging prejudices that affect our own lives. But an effective conversation can only occur when everyone, including you, is comfortable and prepared to talk. And change can’t happen overnight. We may not be able to change minds with just a few words, but with thoughtful, compassionate conversations, we can, hopefully, plant the seeds of progress.

Boys will be boys: Five perspectives on manhood

Written by Change Makers, as part of our “What does being a man mean to you?” blog series. Submit your responses to [email protected]!

4ee5c8fa73c9ed50e09669eda7481766When I was younger, my parents used to tell me to stop crying whenever I cried, the sole reason being that I was a boy. At my kindergarten, children were treated differently based on gender. Even at that age, I felt a distinct sense of unease. Being a child who was not as raucous and outgoing as most other boys, I often felt like I did not belong. In one incident that I remember, I wore my sister’s old shoes to school as my usual pair was damaged. The shoes was mostly white, but had a pink lining. Almost immediately, a boy inquired about the reason for my wearing “pink-coloured shoes”.

I was also often told that I had to get a well-paying job because I would be a man in the future. I’m sure most people have had similar experiences being judged by others. Ironically, it is often family that enforces gender norms most harshly, causing conflict and anguish.

Why can’t people, regardless of gender, be looked upon as what they are – people?

In my view, things are improving. But there is still a lot to be done, and it starts with every single person.

– Chin Jia Yi

2086479_manliness_jpeg44eb71191e545dedf378e9a7121db56cHow many times have you ever been told to “be a man” or to “man up”? Being a man in today’s society entails being strong, independent and successful. Being a man to me has always simply been being of the male sex but to some it means so much more. People expect men to be leaders. Advertisements everywhere teach us from a very young age what the ‘ideal man’ should look like. Pictures of muscled men with six-pack abs are all too common on fashion magazines and billboards. An ideal man has defined muscles and rugged good looks.

However, the reality remains that some men are unable to conform to these expectations. There is more to being a man than being strong, dominant and emotionless. I have experienced first-hand many of my peers trying to fit in, constantly feeling insecure about themselves. Why do we have to behave and look just like everyone else?

– Aahan Gopinath Achar 

I do not try to change what other people think of me regarding my gender. I do not care unless it negatively affects my relationships with others, nor do I try to preach my views every time someone made an offhand remark. It is not worth the effort and usually fails anyway, so it is not worth the trouble. But if someone else feels upset because of an inappropriate comment, I will readily speak up against gender stereotyping and take a stand.

Nguyen Nhat Minh

On countless occasions, I am told to “man up”, to not show weakness. I think people who say that are hypocrites who twist the truth of manhood to fit their warped idea of who they think a man should be. There is no single definition of man no matter how hard we think, agonize and struggle over this abstract concept. So then why do we continue to impose these gender roles on others?

– Joshua Sum

There is societal pressure for men to put on a strong front in spite of hardship, reinforcing a pretty but false picture where men are more rational than women simply because they are men. I still remember when crying in school was looked down upon, since “boys don’t cry”. When men show vulnerability among their peers, they are subject to judgment. I just happen to be male. If expressing human emotion is only natural, why is there a double standard?

– Muhammad Syazwan Bin Ramli


Disarm the Body Police

By Vincent Pak, Change Maker

Transitioning to a more relevant society today will, more often than not, be met with resistance, especially one with largely conservative Asian values such as Singapore. The dos and don’ts of how a woman should behave and carry herself is contested and policed everyday; they are incessantly subjected to the critique of the public. A woman’s right to her body is her own, but sexist societal standards still deem an open-backed dress as ‘slutty’, a short skirt as shameless.

Would we do the same to men? image

The week-old Takashimaya saga where a lady was shouted at by an older woman for dressing ‘inappropriately’ was the talk of the town. The older woman was angered by the lady’s open-backed top that revealed her bra, and warned her not to dress like that in public. A simple case of exacting personal moral judgement on the youths of Singapore.

The so-called appropriateness of a woman’s choice of clothes has been debated ad nauseam, but it is never acceptable to belittle her because of that. A browse through the comments on forums and Facebook will surface a common and disheartening sentiment amongst the peeved netizens: the lady should have covered up.image_4Imagine if it was a man wearing low cut jeans that revealed his briefs. I dare presume that the incident would never have happened. The double standards we enforce on girls and women harm them. We cite reasons like shame and modesty to police their bodies, and denigrate them when they fall out of our own standards. A woman who embraces her sexuality is frowned upon, while her male counterpart is cheered on for doing the same.

We place value on a woman’s body, and deduct it accordingly when she loses her virginity, or dresses revealingly. There is an inherent problem in the way we objectify and govern their bodies like it is our own. When will we realise that body-policing and body-shaming is simply another form of violence?

Alarmingly misinformed netizens went on to slut-shame the lady for inviting trouble with her revealing outfit.


image_1image_2The freedom of opinion is a right, but we must be aware of the sexism that coats what we read, hear and watch. The lady’s outfit may have offended the older woman, but we should seek to understand that it is not in anyone’s jurisdiction to police someone else’s body. The incident reflects the prevailing sentiment that a woman must display decency and dignity, and that is a stereotype we have to unlearn.

The next time you label a woman solely based on how she dresses, remember it is her prerogative, not yours.


About the author: Someone once told Vincent that liking pink as a favourite colour was perfectly fine. That was enough reason for him to subscribe to feminism, because it allowed him to drink strawberry milk with confidence. Still serving his National Service, Vincent enjoys the occasional fantasy that sexism is dead in the military, but stalwartly trusts that he won’t be in denial someday. He is passionate about naps, and prefers baby blue over pink now.