Art takes on street harassment of women

April 1, 2014

“Hey, girl. Why you look mad? Smile!”

I hear this from men on a regular basis. Walking in any neighborhood. Waiting in line anywhere. Standing on an ‘el’ platform. But mostly minding my own business. So I roll my eyes, ignore them, and am okay with being pegged as an Evil Black Woman. These men think telling me to smile is a flirty pick-up line uttered with innocent intentions.

Comments telling me to smile may on the surface seem benign, but the words are intrusive and a form of street harassment. I’m not here to pleasure strangers by smiling.

A provocative arts series addresses these remarks and lets women know these are not isolated experiences.

“Stop Telling Women to Smile” has adorned buildings in cities across the country. Pieces feature drawings of women with phrases underneath: “My name is not baby,” “Women are not outside for your entertainment,” “Women do not owe you their time or conversation,” and “My outfit is not an invitation.”

Brooklyn-based artist Tatyan Falalizadeh’s wheat paste illustrations have made it to Chicago -- just in time for International Anti-Street Harassment Week, which runs through Saturday. I caught a glimpse of one poster on Garfield Blvd. and Indiana Ave.

Local advocates from Hollaback Chicago! , which uses mobile technology and social media to raise awareness, will paste these illustrations in other neighborhoods later this week.

“We hope that the posters would bring awareness and see that it’s not okay,” said Katie Davis, Hollaback Chicago! site leader. “I don’t need to smile at you on the street.”

Davis said the images are relatable and are thoughts that many women have had when it comes to offensive language.

One counter-argument is that men who tell women to smile are being complimentary, not using it as precursor to physical violence.

“I’m willing to kind of go there with that reasoning, but the problem with that is that it ignores the context within which those type of comments happen,” said Sharmili Majmudar, executive director of the Chicago-based Rape Victim Advocates.

The larger context essentially says womens’ bodies are for entertainment and unsolicited commentary. Women are bombarded by street harassment on a daily basis and therefore are not allowed to be out in public in peace.

And that can go a step further when someone is assaulted. The appearances of victims are critiqued, and victim-blaming is the fallback.

“It’s part and parcel of this larger way in which it’s up to a woman to always be the one that’s on the defensive,” Majmudar said. “You see that at the street harassment level and then you also see that considering the wide range of sexual violence -- you see that at workplace sexual harassment, you see that in sexual assault as well.”

The posters offer a way for women to share harassment stories and also broaden the conversation so people know this seemingly mild form of harassment is bothersome.

Maybe next time I’m harassed on the bus, I’ll have to confidence to retort: “I don’t need to smile at you.”

is a WBEZ reporter. nmoore@wbez.org Follow Natalie on Google+,  Twitter