Sexual harassment, catcalling and rape culture in Mauritius

Image by Zoe Stromberg @cutecatcalls

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

– Margaret Atwood

Sexual harassment – a history of trauma and complacency

When I was about 13, I had my pussy grabbed (hey 45!) by a teenage boy in a Rose-Hill shopping gallery. I was walking by, minding my own business, and was casually sexually molested. My (female) friends burst out laughing. The first (and only) thing I felt was embarrassment. I didn’t share this story with anyone who could have been of support (a so-called “responsible adult”) at the time because I felt it was somehow my fault this had happened to me. Boys will be boys and I should know better. This is how I justified sexual violence. This was not the first time nor would it be the last.

Last year, I was on the bus (on my way to therapy, that too) and a young man came to sit next to me. A few minutes later, he started rubbing his arm against mine. I gave him the benefit of the doubt – this type of rationalization often makes things less traumatic – and inched away from him. A few minutes later, he abruptly put his hand on my leg. I froze. I’m so vocal when it comes to advocating for womxn and our rights but when this shit happens to me, I freeze. I shook him off and stared at him. He smiled and moved his hand away, apologetically, acting like it was unintentional. I was petrified. I quickly called a friend and attempted to vaguely describe the situation. Said friend calmly listened and asked me to move to another seat. A reasonable suggestion, but nothing you can think of when you’re in the middle of it. I was wedged against the window, too scared to change seats, scared that if I moved, he might grope me in other, more intimate places. I felt cornered. My friend stayed on the phone until I was able to move and talked to me until I felt better. Soon enough, I got off the bus and went on about my day.

In the aftermath, I told some friends and relatives about what had happened. While some people expressed sympathy and rage (two emotions mirroring my own), some responses were shocking at best, harmful at worst.

“But what were you wearing?”

“Yeah, I know, this kind of stuff happens here.”

“Why didn’t you just move though?”

Two of the above responses shift the responsibility entirely on me. The third, expresses complacency towards a social plague we are just expected to live with. Where’s the outrage? It is this way, it’s been this way, deal with it. Many years after my pussy was grabbed in that shopping mall, years after having forged my own idea of womanhood and coming into my own in more ways than I dreamed possible, my trauma remains as easy to dismiss as ever. 15 years later, I’m still made to feel like sexual violence at my expense is my own doing.

Catcalling, a day in the life

Earlier this year, I was walking my friend to the Port-Louis bus station. On our walk, we got catcalled and harassed for 10 minutes straight (mostly by street vendors near the vegetable market). It was annoying at first but got increasingly disturbing and worrisome. Once we arrived at the station, I went up to a group of bus conductors to ask when her bus would be leaving. The moment we turned to walk away from them, one of the conductors started muttering “come here little girl, come on, come”. Infuriated and emotionally exhausted from the walk we’d just had, I turned around and yelled back. “Are you talking to me? Can I help you?” He shrugged, looked away from me and said no. We turned away as my friend yanked me, signalling me to quiet down. Coward, had the gall to talk down to me with my back turned but had nothing to say to my face. As we walked off, I heard them giggling and mumbling to each other, one of them calling me féroce, a disparaging term in Mauritian Creole, often used to qualify womxn who show too much spunk. They laughed it off as we walked away in fear and rage. Must be nice to make light of the trauma you casually inflict.

Sexual harassment both reinforces and nourishes the cultural and systemic limitations, dehumanization, objectification and sexualization of women and violence against historically marginalized or forgotten communities—every day and all the time.

– Alison Roh Park, writing for INCITE!

I’ve highlighted a handful of similar, highly traumatic episodes to drive my narrative here, but make no mistake, these are by no means isolated instances. If anything, it’s dishearteningly commonplace. This viral video from 2010 accurately depicted what it can be like to exist as a woman in a city (in this case, NYC) and showcased a variety of examples of the types of comments and behaviors we are subjected to on a daily basis.

I am catcalled, whistled at, honked at, leered at and/or harassed anytime I leave my house in Mauritius. I often have men slow their cars down to get a closer look or offer me a lift, men who insist on walking me home. These are some of the more common, often benign (by some accounts, not mine) forms of street harassment. On the nastier end, lewd, explicit, occasionally violent comments on one’s appearance such as “nice ass”, “nice tits on that one”, “she looks like she takes it hard” and more. Every now and then you’ll be followed, sometimes all the way into a grocery store. Rarer, but not unusual, are men who call womxn sluts for not responding to their catcalls (?). Why the fuck should we? Why assume we owe you anything at all? We don’t owe you a response, an acknowledgement, a smile.

People have offered up different solutions to catcalling. Talking back, taking alternate routes, ignoring them etc. I’ve tried it the angry way and although it’s occasionally been cathartic, it more often than not has made me feel like I was putting myself at risk. Of late, I’ve adopted this strange methodology: I remove my glasses and listen to music while walking alone on the street. I keep to myself, I avoid eye contact. In doing so, I am oblivious to most looks, comments and insults. I’m not entirely shielded from them, but it keeps me sane. I can exist within a culture that normalizes street harassment only because of coping mechanisms I crafted myself. The state isn’t doing anything about it. People around me, while occasionally bothered, have largely accepted it. This isn’t and shouldn’t be a long-term solution. Things must change.

Rape culture and internalized misogyny

“If what I wear is comfortable, I am not a woman. If I shed the layers, I am a slut.”

– Billie Eilish

Preston Ni listed an interesting and important set of behaviors and thoughts womxn have which are indicative of various degrees of internalized sexism. These beliefs and thought processes often underlie learned helplessness, rendering so many of us passive in the face of harassment. Some of his observations hit really close to home, especially when he pointed out how some womxn “[defend], [justify], and [excuse] individual acts of misogyny either toward oneself or toward other women”, often direct and indirect consequences of patriarchal society.

People (often cis women) close to me have frequently suggested that I endure more street harassment than I should have to because of the way I dress. I am an easy target because I often bare my midriff. If I’m confident in my body and want to dress in a way that flatters it, I must be asking for it. Well, I refuse to buy into this pathetic excuse for a rationale. I will not clothe myself such that I may be spared sexual abuse. It’s not my responsibility. Prepubescent me was still groped. Adult me is catcalled regardless of what she wears. Additionally, it’s not like womxn don’t already take all kinds of precautions all. the. time. I never walk alone at night. I barely walk alone at all! I don’t engage in conversation with random people. I take the roads most traveled and best lit. I am always on high alert and am hyper-aware of my surroundings at all times. All considerations men rarely have to take (if at all).

Shifting the responsibility onto the victim effectively trivializes sexual harassment, misconduct and assault. Instead of enabling victim-blaming, we should seek to eliminate the pervasive lack of safety that exists for womxn. This approach cuts the perpetrator way too much slack. No more boys will be boys. We do not exist for their consumption. I refuse to hide “inviting” body parts because that makes me a target for harassment, a target for abuse, a target for rape. It is not my responsibility to avoid rape. Rapists must learn to keep their hands and genitals to themselves.

Women as people, a radical thought

My relationship to a man is not what makes me worthy of respect. You don’t have to think of me as someone’s sister, mother or daughter to perceive my humanity. I am worthy of recognition because I am a person. My being female gives you no additional rights on my body. My being female does not relegate me to second class personhood. I am whole with or without being associated to a man.

I don’t need a ring on my finger. I have not been and cannot be claimed. I am not a commodity. I shouldn’t have to tell men “I have a boyfriend” to be left alone. I should be able to say, “I’m not interested” without having to fear for my life. I don’t owe you niceties, I don’t have to soften the blow. You shouldn’t apologize to my partner for harassing me, you should apologize to me. I am me, first and foremost and I don’t need to be anything further for my humanity to be valid.

We should unlearn the understanding that womxn’s bodies were designed to cater to the male gaze. Unlearn the notion that catcalling is inherently complimentary. Divest from the patriarchal structures that allow social ills like street harassment and domestic violence to persist and be left unchecked. As womxn, as allies, we are part and parcel of this patriarchal framework and need to center ourselves and reimagine society in ways that recognize our fundamental humanity. We need to reckon with our internalized sexism.

I am not an appendage to a man. I am not here for anyone’s consumption. I am not a slut. I am not a prude. Do away with your double standards.

Further readings:
What Is Street Harassment?
Op-Ed: Words matter, joking or not
Rape Culture
Street Harassment of Women and Girls in New York City
Gender and Insecurity in Mauritius
Sexual Harassment Survey in Mauritius

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s