Women ‘holla’ out to end street harassment

Prague is joining a global online movement against street harassment — but experts say attitudes are 20 years behind Western Europe

Guest Writer | 02.05.2011
Images from mobile phones and accompanying stories can be posted on the Internet to track incidents of harassment

Most women or members of the LGBT community at some point have had to deal with vulgar remarks, insults, innuendo or maybe even stalking or worse.  The harassment is often tolerated or ignored, and goes unreported. These frustrations incited a group in New York City to set up a blog in 2005 that would grow into a global movement against street harassment by encouraging victims to share their stories and pin them on a Google map.

By creating a platform for women and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people to “holler” about gender-based harassment, Hollaback! is transforming an isolating experience into something sharable.

Since its official launch as a nonprofit organization in May 2010, the project has spread to 27 cities and 10 countries with over 1,000 incidents of harassment mapped on the site, its co-founder and director Emily May said. The organization hopes to expand to more than 50 sites in 2011.

The bilingual Czech sister site Ozvi se!/Hollaback Czech!, started by long-time Prague resident Gail Whitmore — who also organizes the annual V‑Day Prague to end violence against women and girls — hasn’t officially launched yet, as Whitmore is searching for a Czech native to collaborate with. ‘I had a feeling like I’d done something. I didn’t feel victimized.’

Whitmore’s original impetus for participating in the movement was to hold perpetrators more accountable. “We want to document stories with specific locations so that victims and harassers will no longer be the only ones who know what happened,” she said.

For the victim, sharing the experience is a way to reclaim the power that’s otherwise tipped in favor of the perpetrator, she said. As an example, she said she snapped an iPhone photo of a man who was harassing her on a night tram and then posted it on Facebook. “I had a feeling like I’d done something. I didn’t feel victimized. It was a feeling of taking my voice back.”

Since November 2010, users have been able to instantly post stories and photos of assailants and pin them on a map using the Hollaback! iPhone application. In a similar vein, projects like LASH, the London Anti-street Harassment Campaign, and the Cairo-based HarassMap have began crowd sourcing to track down harassment incidents.

The user-generated content is also a way of gathering evidence to present to legislators. May is currently working with the New York City Council and Cornell University to fund a two-year study on street harassment using data collected from iPhones. She said it was first of its kind internationally.

In the Czech Republic, street harassment isn’t explicitly anchored in the legislature, although victims can press civil charges relating to the protection of personality rights in regional courts. The anti-discrimination law approved in the Czech Republic in 2009 — the last EU state to do so — addresses discrimination in access to employment, business, education, health care and social security, but leaves out many areas.

Slow road to gender sensitivity

Marta Vohlídalová of the gender and sociology department at the Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic (AV ČR) said  the country lags 20 years behind Western Europe in gender-related issues. She has just published a study on sexual harassment in higher education. ‘Even in Europe, the first complete study that concerned sexual harassment in the workplace took place in the late ’80s.’

“The issue of sexual harassment, in general, was uncovered in the ’70s in the United States,” she said. “[The focus] was first on the workplace, then the school environment, with other topics and areas opening up gradually. The trends of the areas being uncovered are lagging behind here. Even in Europe, the first complete study that concerned sexual harassment in the workplace took place in the late ’80s. Here, serious studies only began to emerge at the beginning of the 21st century.”

Vohlídalová’s study, released in early April, show that 67 percent of respondents from an unidentified Prague-based university have experienced some form of sexual harassment. “Most of the time, students didn’t pay attention to it, perceiving certain forms as something normal,” she said. The milder forms of harassment, like inappropriate remarks or jokes, were widely accepted.

The results mirror, to an extent, the tolerance of the Czech society toward gender-based violence, she said. While the public might be becoming more gender-sensitive —compared to the anti-feminist mood of the ’90s —Vohlídalová said that, in contrast to Western Europe, Czech society remains fairly patriarchal.

There is a tendency for people to perceive harassment as an overblown and artificially constructed phenomenon imported from abroad and associate it with more serious forms, like blackmail and physical assault, not so much with the milder, gender-related ones, she added.

For many, it’s wrongly seen as “the price to pay for living in a city,” Whitmore said.

Tolerance versus respect

Similarly to milder forms of sexual harassment, most hate crimes against the LGBT community go unreported due to fear of being outed, the fear of revenge and a general distrust of police officials, Kristýna Ciprová of the nonprofit organization Gender Studies said.

While statistics indicate a move toward greater tolerance, it is a conditional sort of acceptance, Ciprová said, and areas, such as marriage and child adoption still spark controversy. For instance, while more than two-thirds approve of registered partnership and 49 percent agree with same-sex marriage, only 29 percent support letting same-sex couples adopt children, a 2010 poll by the Public Opinion Research Center (CVVM) showed.

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Ted' v cestine

This article has been translated and in now available in Czech via the same link.

Just a Comment

Just yesterday a student asked me what sound in English Americans make when they see a pretty girl. I told him that we don't do that anymore. We have done that for over 20 years because we think it's wrong. I'd like to think it's true.


Does your last sentence mean that you have doubts? Personally, I do and would like to hear a bit more open discussion on the topic. By open I mean avoiding a collective "booo" to a guy who winks at a girl he likes, or even cries out: "Hey, beauty!". The way I understand it Hollaback is trying to stop any and all such displays of male interest in women (men in men, women in women). I do not doubt that sexual violence such as stalking, groping, rape in the extreme are to be confronted or prosecuted. But isn't making the boundaries too tight just as dangerous? Lots of Americans (men and women) flooded Eastern Europe in 1990's to appreciate a bit more freedom in expressing their preferences. Where will they go when the boundaries tighten here to the same extreme? To Mars? If these countries are "20 years behind" can't we just say "20 years elsewhere" and try to learn from and avoid the dangers of extreme positions? I believe that the boundary should be with the first response of the person first addresssed. If it is "No, not interested", thats when it has been established. True, easy to say hard to do. Some people just would not take a "No" for an answer...  :-)  

This isn't about stopping

This isn't about stopping displays of male interest, it's about stopping harassment - which is anything but flattering.

I think you're right to say it's about setting boundaries, but setting boundaries after the fact simply doesn't work.  At that point the damage has been done.  It's like telling people that it's OK to call others "fat/stupid/ugly" and that their response should be "I'm not interested in your opinion." It doesn't make the hurt go away. 

I feel like you might be equating street harassment with "hey, baby" or "nice ass" and aren't thinking about all the other racist, homophobic, "you're ugly," barking, etc. stuff that we see on our blogs.

Further Info

Thank you for giving attention to this highly underreported problem. Please visit czech.ihollaback.org for more information or to post your story. You can also find us on Facebook at facebook.com/OzviSe and on Twitter at @HollaBackCzech


Gail Whitmore


Ozvi se! / HollaBack! Czech

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