Street Harassment: The Voice of the Neighborhood

By Arianna Noera

In September 2121, a post on Facebook stirred up a lot of debate. A young woman asked her neighbors if they’d noticed an increase in incidents of street harassment in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. The replies came back quickly. Close to 600 comments were posted, including many eyewitness accounts – and a few diatribes besides.

Women denounced inappropriate touching, inappropriate sexual comments, aggressive gestures, etc. And as there always is, there was another side of the coin on display. Some of the comments went in a different direction. They disparaged women’s stories, adding phrases like: “That depends on how you dress” or “If you were ugly you’d be unhappy because no one would look at you”. What leapt out from the women’s comments was fear, frustration, scorn… but also, an urgent desire to change things.

A Major Problem

Our magazine’s offices are in the Montréal district of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. My colleagues and I regularly consult neighborhood groups to get the latest news on the local population. Recently, we’ve especially focussed on the problem of harassment in public places. A small poll revealed that 91% of respondents have suffered street harassment or have witnessed it.

Harassment isn’t limited to the borough of Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, but is present throughout the city of Montréal. In the spring of 2021 the city commissioned the Centre d’éducation et action des femmes de Montréal to conduct a study in cooperation with UQAM. They did a sociological and statistical analysis of the problem of street harassment on the island of Montréal. The report revealed not only the remarkable frequency of such assaults, but above all, the impact this sort of experience has on the lives of the women affected by them.

Their definition of street harassment is the same we based our poll on: “All statements or behavior of a sexual or sexist nature, intrusive, insistent and unsolicited, committed in public places and on public transit by strangers, mostly men, mostly targeting women.”

Street harassment has always existed. But there seems to have been an increase in these acts with COVID-related confinement measures coming to an end. It is difficult to determine what has triggered this increase. There are many hypotheses, but they remain just guesses. Whether it’s the anonymity conferred by masks or a new wave of violence in the streets, one thing is clear: we must find a solution to this problem, because many residents do not feel safe.

Hard-Hitting Testimony

I shared my concerns with the neighborhood group Hochelaga Mon Quartier. Through them, I made an appeal for eyewitness accounts for this article. The comments I received took different forms. Some were in agreement with my project and recounted their experiences. Others took on a more negative tone, which did not pass unnoticed. But only one person accepted to do a telephone interview.

Alejandra Omri is an active member of her community group. Omri emigrated from Mexico to Canada 20 years ago. She says she never had any problems with harassment before last year. Then, throughout 2021, Omri witnessed several harassment incidents, and was herself a victim on one occasion.

She lived in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve before moving to the Centre-Sud district. Nonetheless, she continues to frequent her old neighborhood. During our phone interview, her shock over having to face this new reality over the last few months was clear. “Above all, I notice the men on foot who harass young women on the street,” she said.

The Importance of Education

 When I asked her how she thinks we should deal with this issue, she immediately replied: “Educating men. It’s cultural. It’s not a temporary problem.” Omri thinks that the objectification of women in the media unleashes harassment. “Institutions like school should raise awareness and educate the population from their earliest age,” she said. She is cognizant of the work that organizations do each and every day on this issue.

The next step is to create multiple round table discussions in Montréal, in the Hochelaga neighborhood, as well as in other Québec cities. These round tables will give women a voice, and allow them to be heard, including their ideas for solutions.  

– As seen in Reflet de Société, Vol. 30, No. 3, March 2022

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