Take back the streets: Fighting harassment with feminist street art

One woman is battling street harassment by showing the world the faces of its victims


"Somebody's acknowledging you for being beautiful.  You should say thank you more!"

"God bless you, Mami. Damn!"

These are just a few of the more than 100 examples of verbal harassment that the anti-harassment organization Hollback recorded as actress Shoshana B. Roberts walked the streets of New York City for 10 hours. Since it was published Tuesday, a two-minute video capturing many of those comments has received more than 16 million views on YouTube, while the actress featured in it has reportedly received rape threats.

To some, the comments in the video might seem innocuous.

"VERBAL HARASSMENT? WHAT!? This woman should feel good about all these compliments she received," one YouTube commenter remarked on the video. "Yeah some guys were acting all weird and creepy but NOBODY TOUCHED HER. Fucking feminists, women these days threat compliments as sexual harassment?"

But for women who experience it daily, they are a form of harassment that can disrupt their lives.

Artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is one of them.

The Oklahoma native had grown up dealing with street harassment. But it was fall of 2012, while she was living in Philadelphia, that she reached a tipping point. 

"It's a pedestrian city, so you're outside all the time," Fazlalizadeh explained. "And I'm coming in direct contact with men all the time. And that's when I started to notice this isn't just a compliment anymore. It's not just flattery anymore. This is happening consistently. And it's annoying. And it's sometimes scary."

Her response, a project she titled "Stop Telling Women to Smile," aims to draw attention to street harassment and its pernicious effects by placing portraits of women who have been harassed outside in public spaces, captioned with messages to their offenders.

"So you see a painting of a person, and you look at their expression on their face, and you look at their eyes, and you look at what they're going through, and you realize that this isn't just some abstract concept that's happening," she explained. "…This is a woman who actually goes through this."

The process begins with a casual interview with the subject.

"We have a conversation about street harassment," Fazlalizadeh said. "'What do you go through? What have you experienced?'"

She then shoots her subject's portrait, and based on the photograph, makes a simple black and white graphite drawing. The caption is inspired by the conversation they had. She then takes the prints and 'wheatpastes' them in public spaces. 

The messages on Fazlalizadeh's portraits illustrate the range of harassment women encounter on the streets, from invasions of their space or time, to name-calling and unwanted touching.

"Do not touch my hair," reads one. "No, you can't talk to me for a minute," states another.

They cross languages and cultures: "No me llamo mamacita, Chiquita, preciosa, cht cht."

Others are just simple reminders of what women are not, like, "Women are not outside for your entertainment," or, "Women are not seeking your validation."

Though the project started with women she knew, like colleagues and friends, it quickly grew to include women she'd never met in cities across the country.

Men have also been partners in the campaign.
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

"I do notice that no matter where women live, what their story is, there is a common theme between all of it," she said of the project's success. "And that's the feeling of men feeling entitled to treat you or say to you or do whatever they want to do to you outside on the street."

Often, the offenders view their comments or behavior as a compliment -- something that should be taken lightly, even appreciated.

"Whenever someone says that to me, 'Oh, it's just a compliment,' as some type of defense, I take offense to that,” she said. “I feel like it's a condescending thing to say to someone… As if me, as a grown woman, I don't know what a compliment is."

And while the comments can seem benign, she warns that something darker and even dangerous can lurk beneath them.

"If you don't respond to a man in the way that he wants you to respond to him, if you don't respond to him at all, if you just don't say anything, then he can quickly curse you out, throw something at you, become scary and violent," she said. "It can become a safety issue."

Some of the comments and responses that Fazlalizadeh's work has generated.
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Her cause is gaining traction. Fazlalizadeh's images have escaped the walls on which they're glued, spreading widely on the Internet. And a KickStarter campaign she launched last fall to bring the project to other cities in America raised nearly $35,000.

"I get inboxes from people, saying, you know, ‘Thank you for this. I relate to this.  I appreciate this. How can I help with this? I want to be involved with this,’” she said.

And as the project has grown, so has Fazlalizadeh's understanding of the problem.

"Street harassment itself is kind of broad, right? But there's a lot of things inside of that. There's racism. There's classism. There's homophobia, transphobia." she explained. "There's all these different levels to it that I'm learning more about."

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