Disempowerment and sexual harassment

As a mounting passion for women’s empowerment possesses the world, intensifying cases of sexual harassment in public places regularly challenge the progress of feminism. Behind the inappropriate remarks, unwanted physical contact, indecent exposure, or stalking many of us face each day, there is a machine that is fueled each time our power is wrested from us. As an exchange student, I was unable to fully understand how deeply sexual harassment invades daily life before my arrival here; however, the fact that it has become my reality does not prevent me from grasping the mechanics of how such behaviors threaten women’s empowerment with little opposition.

Womanhood in Paris is constantly violated. Relative to population size, cases of street harassment in Paris are among the most frequent in the world (Elzas, Sara. “On French Public Transit, ‘100 percent’ of Women Have Been Sexually Harassed.” Radio France Internationale. Web. Apr 16 2015). In reality, over half of all women in Paris have been groped, three-fourths of us have been stalked, and every female that uses public transportation will be targeted by a form of sexual harassment (Dr. Livingston, Beth. “International Street Harassment Survey Project.” Cornell University, Web. May 15, 2015). Additionally, as illustrated in the testimonies provided by other exchange students, the isolation of life in an unknown city without adequate means of contacting local authorities and a lack of nearby support only worsens an already excruciating ordeal.

My first morning here I went walking in a park, near Belleville. I thought I heard something so I turned and saw a guy on a bench looking at me. When he realized I spoke English he came towards me – I speak French, but not the kind I’d need to tell this guy to get lost. So I walked away but he followed me. He grabbed my arm and pulled me in, trying to kiss me. I got away, but I was so afraid then. It all happened before classes even started… if I hadn’t been able to call home, I would have been isolated.” Emma S.

The degrading message of street harassment is one that surpasses any language barrier. I don’t need to speak French to feel the way offenders undress me with their eyes or hear the humiliating laughter in their words – all as if I am little more than an object available for their physical pleasure or punishment. As feminists cherish victories and newfound respect in every field imaginable, how is this growing trend of harassment and disempowerment not only able to exist in Paris, but to thrive?

Here, I see people pride themselves as being ‘progressive’ and ‘advanced’ compared to other cultures when, in reality, the microaggressions towards women that people turn a blind eye to are appalling.” Scarlett S.

When my independence and pride are taken from me, my empowerment fades as well. Street harassment removes the promise of safety from public spaces, effectively creating a dependence upon a protector or means of protection. Additionally, the immense feeling of self-doubt that generally follows an incident withers away my sense of self-worth each time my intellect and identity are regularly devalued to no more than a physical object. Perhaps most importantly, the seemingly accepted omnipresence of street harassment questions the depth of a stated commitment to women’s empowerment; if my womanhood were wholly valued, I would not be told to accept a reality that chronically seizes what little power I have.

Already, I’ve intentionally de-beautified myself out of fear. It’s as if the women here are taught to accept harassment as normal. But if the issue were important enough, there’d be ways for us to fight this instead of having to adjust to it.” Mel M.

Everyone at Sciences Po I’ve met so far has been so supportive, but I lose that community feel when I leave campus for such a diverse city. Losing that one source of support in an unfamiliar city makes it tough.” Emma S.

When, as a woman abroad, the opportunity to learn and grow is unachievable without the demeaning and often dangerous presence of street harassment, I’m unwilling to believe that I’m truly being empowered. The beauty of a country built on the promise of “liberté, égalité, and fraternité” is the unbelievable potential held within – but without an atmosphere of supportive dialogue, without the implicit respect of my body, and without a constructive climate where street harassment is treated as the crime it is, I am just as much a product of a promise of equality as I am of a certainty of disempowerment.

Rachel Brewer 

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