Last week, I walked to the Women’s Collective of Matagalpa, which I’ve been to multiple times for their spontaneous theater shows. The collective has a theater program, health and education outreach, and a radio station.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness month. April 10-16 is International Anti-Street Harassment Week, so I thought I’d see if the collective was having an event to raise awareness. I’d just written about kick-ass organizations in Egypt, Mexico, the U.S., and India fighting against street harassment, so I thought I’d ask.
I asked Machú, a woman who works there and documents all of the spontaneous theater shows. “No, we haven’t planned anything, but maybe you could talk to Argentina. She’s running the radio program right now since Leo is in Europe on the theater tour.”
Fanny, one of my the most expressive, lively actresses, happened to be there and listened in. She said hello to me with the typical kiss on the cheek and jokingly said, “Hi, Charlotte-I mean, Charleen!” because it took her a while to get my name right. We giggled, then she walked me over to the radio station, where I spoke with Argentina about my spontaneous question-turned-project.
“We don’t have anything planned to raise awareness, but street harassment happens every day, not just one week of the year. I can reserve a slot for you to come chat at 8 AM on Monday if you’d like. It would be good if you brought a friend who is from here.” I agreed that it would be important for a Nicaraguan woman to talk about it, so I called my friend Rosa right away. She agreed to send her daughter, Amy, whose quinceañera (15th birthday party) my mom and I attended last Christmas Eve.
Fanny’s son, Marlon, was also there, and I asked if he could come. He agreed because street harassment affects everyone, not just women. In November 2015, Gerardo Cruz was stabbed and killed in San José, Costa Rica after he caught a perverted man following a woman from behind and filming up her skirt. The video went viral, but he lost his life for speaking against street harassment.
Street harassment affects everyone. It’s so important to talk to boys as well as girls about actions that dismantle gender equity. These kinds of workshops will be done at Peace Corps Camp CHACA for boys in Nicaragua this July.
Street harassment also hurts economies. I often wonder how much more tourism dollars a country’s people could earn if women weren’t afraid of traveling because of feeling uncomfortable in public. I’ve decided against traveling down the street or to different countries because I don’t want to be hissed at or groped in public.
On Monday, I walked with Amy to The Collective. “Are you nervous to be on the radio?” I asked her. “No,” she said. “Well, I am! I’m glad you’re not nervous. What you’re doing is so important because many people don’t have a chance to share their opinions and to be heard. I’m nervous, but excited” I replied. I’d been on the radio before in Ecuador when I went with La Poderosa Media Project in 2011, but that time, I just spoke about who I was and where I was from. This time, it would be a more meaningful topic that I’d hoped would begin more much-needed conversations about unintentional (and intentional) gender oppression.
Amy and I got to the station and arrived before Argentina did. I don’t know about Amy, but I was squirming in my seat! In order to kill time, we chatted about her experiences with harassment.
Then, it was time to start once Argentina and Meyling arrived. We introduced ourselves and Argentina began the interview. She talked about how street harassment is becoming a more violent issue. The older men she’s talked to say that back in the day, they used to “seduce” women in the street by saying “sweet” things to them (las enamoraban), but never being disrespectful to them. Now, men are being more and more vulgar, forward, and disrespectful. With that background knowledge about the history of cat calling, we began.
Argentina (our host): How does street harassment make you feel?
Meyling: If you walk down into the city, and on the way down, you hear ten cat calls, then on the way back up, you’ll hear them ten times again. It’s exhausting for women to feel like they are constantly being objectified, or worse, groped. If men yell vulgarities at me, like “hey mamacita, you look delicious today,” then I tell them that what they’re doing is punishable by the Ley 779, and that I have the right to report them to the police. Once, a man in the street threatened to beat me up because I didn’t like him! He tried hugging me to feel my chest, but I had to use a self-defense move I learned in a jiu jitsu class on him.”
Meyling ended up thrusting her palm against his chin, causing him to fall back as she ran away.
Me: When men cat call me a “delicious white woman” in the street, I feel uncomfortable and objectified. I’m not a coconut popsicle! (The women in the room covered their mouths and laughed at this one) I’m not a food. I’m not an object. I’m a person. It’s interesting to point out that back in the day, men talking to women in the street was seen as a civilized, polite affair. Enamoraban a las mujeres (They seduced women).
“Enamorar” has the most positive connotation. Then, it was and is called “cat-calling”, or tirar piropos. We cannot see it as this innocent act any more. It’s violent, it’s unsolicited, and so we need to call it what it is: street harassment.
Amy explained that she’s experienced street harassment for as long as she could remember, and she brought up the important issue of child raising. By sharing her experience about her father trying to get her brother to talk to women as a boy, she made it clear that we need to think about how we raise our children. We need to teach our children how to be respectful to others.
Break time rolled along. My Nicaraguan counterpart teacher, Claudia, tapped on the door and came in a bit late because she’d gotten lost. Claudia and I are runners, so we both know what it’s like to have our workout routines disrupted by harassment. I was assaulted on a run last year because I wore headphones to avoid harassment, and my attacker thought I had a shiny iphone in my pocket, but I didn’t. I simply wore headphones to trick men into thinking I couldn’t hear them, but I still experienced physical violence. I’ve mostly recovered from it, as I ran a 10k later, but it’s undeniable that street harassment has shaped my experience here.
Claudia goes running at 5 AM to avoid the crowds. Once, on a run, a man began to take of his clothes and masturbated in front of her. She threatened to report him if he ever did that again, but the next day, she was too shaken up to go running.
After Claudia shared, Argentina asked our listeners whether they thought cat-calls were innocent compliments or harassment. No one called in to participate, but oh well- the five of us had more than enough to say! We moved on to talking about how women dress. No matter how you dress, you’ll get attention. Harassers seem to think that women dress in order to please the men, not themselves.
“I’m a lesbian, so I’m not attracted to men,” I shared. “If I wear shorts it’s because it’s hot outside and I want to avoid sweating profusely (It’s always in the 80s and humid around here). I don’t wear shorts to please men.”
I almost didn’t come to Nicaragua because I was afraid of having to be in the closet, but here I was, coming out on the radio!
Before we knew it, it was 9 AM. We wrapped it up, and I gave a shout out to Amy’s mom, Rosa, for sending her brave daughter along to chat about street harassment. We’d all been pretty nervous to be on the air, but as the show progressed, we ended up laughing, giggling, and nodding our heads at one another.
We didn’t feel alone that morning, and I’m sure our listeners didn’t either. By having conversations like these about the misconceptions and effects of street harassment, maybe someday we’ll put an end to it.
Amy was such a boss that Argentina asked for her contact info to come back for another show!