Street Harassment and the Power of its Witnesses by Dina Nigmatullina

As a sociology graduate student researching street harassment in Istanbul, my graduate research brought me to Hollaback Istanbul last semester. Since then, I have been volunteering with the organization which is how I came to coordinate the “I’ve Got Your Back” campaign and bring together my activism and my academic interests.

Some of the women that I talked to as a part of my graduate thesis research told me that when facing public harassment- either witnessing or experiencing it themselves- they prefer to remain silent. One of the reasons preventing them from speaking out is that they are worried about the opinions and reactions of people around them. “What would all these strangers around me think if I made a scene? What if I am the only one who thinks it’s wrong? What if nobody’s got my back?”

But what if they simply don’t know how to react? An intervention from a bystander could change what you remember as an unpleasant and emotional damaging incident on a bus when a guy rubs against you to a memory of how willing people are to stand up for you and against public harassment. Yet, usually other passengers witness the harassment, and no one says anything or comes to help you.

The role of harassment witnesses should and can be reversed from passive individuals standing by to helping bystanders. How? Hollaback Istanbul in corroboration with the award-winning bystander program Green Dot has worked to bring a bystander campaign titled “I’ve got your back!” [“Arkandayım!”] to Turkey. The campaign aims at educating people to intervene when they witness public harassment and encourage people to stand up for victims.

There are several ways in which a bystander can put an end to an incident of public harassment: ranging from asking the target if he or she is okay to directly addressing the harasser or reporting him or her to the authorities (a police officer, supervisor, public transportation attendant, etc.). As a part of “I’ve got your back!” campaign, Canimiz Sokakta: Hollaback Istanbul has included the ‘I’ve got your back!’ page that covers other possible bystander-in-action strategies on their website.

Apart from learning how to have each other’s backs in real life, people will be able do it virtually by submitting a bystander intervention story on Hollaback Istanbul’s web-page. A green dot will appear on the interactive map each time a bystander story is submitted. We hope and believe that in the future all the red dots from victims of street harassment will soon be outnumbered by the green ones.

Submitting stories will become easier with the new iPhone and Droid applications that will be available to download from Hollaback Istanbul’s web-page. The applications will allow people to submit stories, pictures, and videos of street harassment directly from their phones. How will it help to fight street harassment? A popular YouTube video of Nicola Briggs confronting a flasher on New York subway proves that a bystander in action is powerful and a bystander with a camera on their phone is even more so. The video of Briggs confronting the harasser (who was later sentenced to 4 months of jail) was filmed and uploaded on YouTube by a bystander.

In the survey titled “Sexual Harassment in Public Areas in Istanbul” that I have conducted as a part of the research for my graduate thesis, some respondents indicated that they would ignore the scene of public harassment rather than intervening in it. We believe that the campaign brought to Turkey by Hollaback and Green Dot will alter this reality. It is important for a target of street harassment to know somebody’s got their back. This assurance by others and the community at large will give witnesses the impetus to holla back, respond to, and take actions against harassers. Only then will public places become safe and welcoming for everyone.

[My graduate research mentioned in this article is still in progress, and all results are preliminary.]

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