Farah Benis: “The traditional female experience is an ingrained sense of fear for our safety”
By: Kuheli Biswas
A woman’s journey from creating awareness to petitioning laws against sexual harassment across the UK.
Jimmy Choo’s shoes are a dream for some women and Cara Delevingne’s strut on dazzlingly rhinestones boots in ‘shimmer in the dark’ advert is nothing less than that. Between all the sparkles, what perhaps doesn’t catch your attention instantly is the guy standing in the shady corner who wolf whistles and calls out ‘Nice shoe lady!’ This outraged some women for normalizing catcalls as compliments in the advertisement. And why shouldn’t they be? Imagine yourself in the shoes of a woman walking down a dark street at night and some stranger commenting on your appearance. It might not seem very scary for Delevingne’s persona in the advert but for most women that creates a sense of foreboding.
Catcalling is perhaps the first form of harassment that a woman faces in her lifetime and it starts from early teenagehood. It’s a sad reality. Girls from early on learn to step out of their house with fear and caution on their mind and no one deserves to live like that.
Now, women are fighting back against harassment by bringing the issue to the spotlight. They are no longer hiding behind whispered advice and mute embarrassment. And one such person is Farah Benis, the founder of @catcallsofldn, created in collaboration with @catcallsofnyc. Benis is bringing awareness to the never-ending stream of sexual harassment that women face regularly in the UK and has joined forces with Lambeth Youth Council on the campaign #itmademefeel. She chalks on public areas the catcalls that some men sneer at the female population as young as 11.
What encouraged you to become an activist?
I never really thought of it as being an activist. I was inspired to start the catcallsofldn, after seeing Sophie’s catcallofnyc. I have experienced harassment in various forms my whole life, in the streets and in the workplace. It finally got to a point, where it felt like I had multiple experiences and was fed up over it. And I saw Sophie’s campaign where she was doing something about the street harassment issue in a way that I related to and joined in.
Do you have any specific incident that influenced you the most?
It had been a series of incidences. Once a man pulled his penis out on the bus in front of me, another time a man standing behind me at a bus stop started rubbing himself up against me. I have been punched in the face by a man who asked for my phone number and I said no to. I have been harassed in the workplace multiple times by colleagues. So, it isn’t just one experience. It is a lifetime of continued targeted harassment that started from when I was around 13 years old and I am 32 now.
What I realized while talking to other people about it, and not just harassment but even further experiences of sexual assault is that every single woman I know has some kind of story. Maybe of varying degrees but they often have more than one. These multiple stories and experiences just show how widespread of an issue it is. We need to be doing far more to change the fact that we live in a society that allows this to be normalized.
What similarities do you see in all the catcall submissions?
One thing I get in a lot of submissions is ‘I wish I had said something.’ I always try to tell people that they should never feel ashamed of how they reacted in a moment because they were frightened or angry. People often ask me how I react to things and I have had moments where I had completely cramped up or had replied back. But there is no right or wrong answer in terms of how you respond to it because for everyone it is going to be different.
What made you start the ‘Make Street Harassment Illegal in the UK’ petition to the parliament?
When I started this campaign I realized the scale of the issue and how many people are affected by it. It’s not just the wolf-whistling, we are talking about women being followed down the street, women being groped, women being abused, women being threatened with rape and their safety threatened. It makes women feel unsafe going out in the street and every woman has a right to walk on the street without the fear of being accosted. So as a civilized nation why are we so behind on the law.
Do you think the issue has been trivialized as only being a women’s problem?
Yes, I think it is trivialized in many ways as a feminist issue. one of the most common terms of abuse that I received is feminazi, angry man-hating woman. But there are also positives. Many men that I have spoken to about this were not aware of how widespread of an issue it was and now is one of the biggest supporters and advocates of my campaign.
How do you advise people regarding harassment?
Firstly, I advise adults to educate young people they are responsible for about harassment, consent, and personal space. Secondly, my advice to young people is do not be afraid to say no, go to a trusted adult, and trust your gut. There is absolutely nothing wrong with speaking out about things that makes you feel uncomfortable, no matter what situation you are in and where you are. Everyone obviously reacts to different situations in a different way and what works for me might not work for you. But at the end of the day, your safety is always number one.