Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s installation Stop Telling Women to Smile is a street art project designed to confront the frustration many women have felt as a result of street harassment. This harassment, whether it comes in the form of silent leers or the infamous cat calls, is confronted by women on a daily basis–when they are on their way to work, heading home or just strolling about. Seldom do women get the chance to confront their harassers or feel comfortable enough doing so–Fazlalizadeh has given them the platform to accomplish exactly that.
Street harassment is not an issue often openly discussed, so it was a welcomed opportunity to have Ms. Fazlalizadeh come talk to students about an issue many women are inflicted by constantly. Just because whistling and suggestive comments have become normalized does not mean that the topic has ceased to deserve further discussion and, more importantly, that it is acceptable. Those fleeting words that are passed off as “admiration” or “praise” are too often seen as harmless, neglecting the severity of their consequences. What public discourse fails to recognize is that street harassment is more than flirty comments being thrown out at a passerby; it is an infringement on one’s personal space. But this does not go unnoticed by the women who experience harassment, and, as a result, many of the posters featured in Stop Telling Women to Smile allude to this sort of physicality that street harassment produces, touching on the objectification of the female body and the expectation women face to engage in interactions they do not initiate.
What the public discussion–when there is any–also seems to ignore is that street harassment can turn fatal quickly. Take the case of Mary Spears, a mother of three, who was fatally shot after turning down a man. She was celebrating at a bar in Detroit with family members, including her fiancé, when a stranger approached her. After explaining to the man that she was in a relationship and was not interested in talking, he continued to harass her. Eventually this man was escorted from the bar, but that failed to deter him from attacking Spears when she went outside. Quickly a brawl ensued, ending with Spears dead after three gunshot wounds. While this altercation didn’t happen on the streets, it very much embodies the extremities street harassment can lead to if given the chance to escalate.
Cases like these, which are not unique but rarely reported on, are examples of street harassment transcending past the vocal into the physical–something many women think about when put in that position.
Should I smile just so I don’t piss them off or risk them potentially following me because I didn’t respond?
A question like this is not unfamiliar to a woman passing by a group of men yelling suggestive comments at her, this option to compromise or stay true to herself. Many times, I’ve found myself obliging with a small grin (or grimace, to put it more accurately) so there wouldn’t be any chance of a follow-up. In these instances, I don’t care about what these men think or say, but I am aware that my decision not to respond may come off as rude–offensive, even. Having control only over myself, how the other person reacts to my response (or lack thereof) is up for them to decide, and I often choose to play the game so that it doesn’t escalate.
I can’t say this logic about how to deal with the situation was produced entirely by me. Ever since I could travel on my own, I’ve been constantly warned about how to engage with strangers, particularly men. The advice would go along the lines of while you don’t want to engage, you don’t want to act in a way that can be misinterpreted and cause him to become offended. In other words, let him down without him even knowing. This advice, which I’m sure is far from unique, is given validity with cases like that of Mary Spears, where women are harmed, sometimes fatally, for offending a man’s ego. So I get why I would be advised to treat the matter delicately. But, to me, that “solution” only serves to make the problem more bearable–not address it or work to actively dismantle it.
The real solution is for society to get to the point where it is understood that no man or woman is obligated to engage with another–that engaging is a privilege, not a requirement. We need to educate children, our parents, even our elders, that it is not one being’s responsibility to participate in the swelling of another’s ego, especially in exchanges that cause one to feel uncomfortable. We have the responsibility as human beings is to create a space where men and women feel safe to walk around and not pressured to oblige in requests or commands for the sake of avoiding negative repercussions.
An example of this solution playing out in a real-life scenario? You may be outside and a woman walks by without a smile on her face. You want to yell out “You’re too pretty to frown! Smile!” thinking it may make her day better. Don’t. Her expression could be a result of a variety of reasons: she’s had a bad day or she’s off in her own world, not worried about what her face looks like to the people she’s passing by. It could even be that she simply does not want to engage in a conversation, and her face is a shield used for protection. Whatever the reasons, if you really care about what she’s thinking, you can try asking. But don’t tell her to smile– she’ll smile when she wants to.