Catcalling. Whistling. Being followed. Inappropriate touching. And sometimes, sexual violence and rape. These are all types of street harassment that women in Paris universally reported experiencing on public transport.
High school student Zoe Coutard said she was 14 when the harassment began.
“Often, men think that going up to a woman and saying, ‘You’re beautiful,’ is always a compliment. But the truth women are told from a young age is that we’re in danger of being harmed in some way. So if someone comes up to me in the street and says, ‘You’re sexy,’ it’s not a compliment, it’s scary. On top of that, I never know how someone is going to react if I say no,” Coutard told Refinery29.
Earlier this year, the French government’s High Council for Equality Between Men and Women released a report revealing that a staggering 100% of women surveyed in the Paris region said they had experienced harassment on public transit. And while sexual harassment in France — and other parts of the world — is a serious issue, many activists believe governments don’t treat it with the urgency and gravity it deserves.
But things in Paris are moving in a positive direction. In October, the Parisian transport provider RATP unveiled a 12-point awareness campaign to combat street harassment. RATP teamed up with the association STOP Harcèlement de Rue (Stop Street Harassment) and other advocacy organizations to create the campaign, which provides travelers with emergency numbers to report sexual harassment and reminds would-be harassers of the harsh punishments: up to 75,000 Euros and five years in jail.
And since March 2014, STOP Harcèlement de Rue has hosted a number of actions to fight against street harassment, including awareness campaigns, rallies, school interventions, and more. The group aims to educate women about the types of harassment that are out there and encourages bystanders to intervene to support victims.
Refinery29 recently accompanied the group on one of its school interventions and spoke to young Parisians about their own experiences with street harassment and what they think needs to be done in order to put an end to it, once and for all.
Photo caption: Zoe Coutard, 17, first started experiencing harassment three years ago. “We need to educate people better about harassment,” she told Refinery29.
Imen Choubidou, 25,
Student and volunteer with STOP Harcèlement de Rue Paris
“When you talk about women’s issues, a lot of people get defensive — women included, because there’s such a stigma around everything that has to do with women’s rights. I feel like you always get the same arguments. Whenever you say something about your experience as a woman, the first response you’ll get is, ‘Not all men…’ A lot of people don’t want to hear what we have to say.
“Even when I talk about street harassment today in the class, I see so many female students who blame other women for what happens to them. Once they understand that it’s a real problem and we’re not making this up, it’s easier to open up. We need to make people understand that harassment really is an issue, that it’s not something we’re inventing.”
Milena Anthony, 17
High school student
“Nobody stops to help when it comes to harassment. You’re like part of the landscape and that’s it. You could ask for help, and nobody would come and rescue you. A guy once came up to me in the metro and when I refused to talk to him, he responded by punching me twice in the stomach. No one helped.
“We could be raped, or something worse, and it’s like the mentality here is you don’t help someone who needs help. People need to understand that from the moment you say ‘No,’ it’s sexual harassment or assault — without exception.”
Julien Premier, 21, Francois Desimon, 21, Marie Menard, 21, and Camille Constans, 20
Students at Sciences Po Paris
(from left to right)
Premier: “It’s really important for us guys to step up if we see something happening. At least the campaign is showing that something is done, but obviously that’s not enough. We need more people to speak up.”
Menard: “Before the government began talking about harassment as a real issue, we didn’t really talk about it here. No one really thought it was a real issue. I’m happy to see that that’s finally changing.”
Constans: “We all know someone who has been afraid to be alone at night. Many think that maybe they can allow themselves to harass women, but I don’t know exactly why. I think initiatives like the metro campaign are a start, but not enough to stop harassment altogether.”
Alice Diaz, 17
High school student
“Sometimes, at night, I’m afraid to go home from parties alone. I know I usually don’t have anything to worry about, but I can’t help it, because we live in a society where I don’t have any other choice.”
Justine Embarak, 21
“Women are afraid to speak up. They’re often afraid that men will become violent if they say something. I’m personally not afraid, so if there is an issue, I’ll say something. But sometimes, my friends even say to me: ‘Don’t cause any trouble, because these men can be more violent if you provoke them and the situation can get bad.’ It’s not fair for us to have to live in this way.”
Camille Soulier, 26,
Volunteer with STOP Harcèlement de Rue Paris
“The hardest thing to get across is what a plight [street harassment] actually is for women. One of the most popular comments you get from men is that women who dress up a certain way are ‘looking for it.’ They say that as a joke, but you can feel that they really do believe that some women dress up provocatively simply looking for that kind of attention.
“I think the problem with harassment in France is that we don’t necessarily address it as a societal problem. For example, harassment and general sexism is a major problem in French parliament, but these politicians aren’t penalized for their actions. So as long as people aren’t punished for being sexist in their workplace, it becomes that much more difficult to then go into these schools and tell these young guys from difficult backgrounds that what they’re doing is wrong.”
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