By: Natasha Sriraman
make a whistle, shout, or comment of a sexual nature to a woman passing by.
Cat-Call—the word seems benign, no? However, cat-calls, also known as the harassment of women walking by a man or group of men, is anything but benign. As a petite Indian woman, I remember getting yelled or whistled at since I was 16 years old. I distinctly remember rushing to class while attending college in a big city and there were men working construction who started yelling at me. At first, I didn’t realize who or what they were yelling at. Then I listened, really listened. The comments and words used made me blush, I felt so embarrassed, so violated. Unfortunately, this happened quite frequently during my 4 years in college. However, back then, I did not realize there was a name for it. I never talked to my friends about it, I was never taught what to do or how to react or handle it by women in my life.
I began to realize that cat-calling occurs in different countries and means different things. I was harassed on the street in India because I did not look Indian. My male cousins were so embarrassed by the cat-calling, they had me sit out of sight since I looked “too American.” When in Spain, my red-headed friend and I heard yelps and whistles from cars passing by. As I became angry, we were told that this was a type of compliment!
Unfortunately, I think we, as women, are supposed to just “accept” the cat-calling as some type of social norm. In fact, I never discussed it with my husband or friends—I just put my head down and ignored it. When this issue arose again, however, I realized that I needed to say something about this because it’s not just for me anymore, but for my kids, both daughters AND sons.
When this video came out (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1XGPvbWn0A) it really highlighted the wide-spread problem of street harassment. No matter how many times I watch it, the cat-calling the actress was subjected to makes me cringe. When my teenage daughter saw this, we talked about it. I asked her when it happened to her and how she handled it. And then I realized, that after all the parental talks I have had with my children about safety, I had never discussed the issue of street harassment with any of them. Again, do we just accept this as something normal when we are walking down the street? Even though laughed about the Hollaback! videos that showed some women responding and talking back to these men and their inappropriate comments, we realized, in reality, you cannot respond. Usually, you are by yourself and keeping yourself safe is of the utmost importance. My daughter told me that she just ignores it and plans on carrying pepper spray with her.
But it’s not just about our daughters, but it’s teaching our sons. While the male friends in my life would never think to yell out at a woman walking by, we, as mothers, need to teach our sons about every aspect of respecting women. Many times, we forget to talk about the verbal harassment that comes out of mens’ mouths. And as many of the interviews show, the men who cat-call think that by doing this, they are respecting women by complimenting their physical appearance. So it is our job to teach them otherwise, that no, this doesn’t make us women feel good about ourselves, but in fact, it makes us feel horribly uncomfortable…and unsafe.
Many times, we think, ah well, this is a problem of being a young woman. However, I was prompted to write this piece because of what happened to me just a few weeks ago. Although I wasn’t wearing a physician white coat, I was walking into the hospital where I work. And while I was rushing to my clinic to see patients, carrying my bag, lunch and other papers, I hear it. Hey gorgeous, good morning. Most of the time I walk in with my head down or pretending to look at something on my phone. Instead of a strong confident physician of 20 years, I felt like a young school girl, 17 years old, all over again. The tiny hairs stood up on the back of my neck as I walked faster. No I wasn’t walking down an alley at night….I was walking into my hospital at 8 in the morning! After I ignored it, this man, a hospital employee, retorted back with another comment.
So although I don’t have the answers, it is time for both women and men to educate our children and to start calling these men out. It is not okay to cat-call a woman, no matter how attractive you think she is. It is not okay to make a girl feel unsafe or uncomfortable in her surroundings. And yes, the boys and men in our lives need to be aware of our ubiquitous cat-calling is within society. However, safety is crucial. If you need to look down, ignore the comments, call someone or duck into a store, staying safe and whatever you need to do to feel safe is of the utmost importance. And I plan to have this discussion with all my kids (daughters and sons) to help them become aware of this very serious problem in our society.
Natasha K. Sr
Natasha K. Sriraman, MD, MPH, FAAP, FABM is a board-certified physician and associate professor of pediatrics in Norfolk, Virginia.
She holds a master’s degree in public health from the University of Pittsburgh and currently serves as Adjunct Lecturer at the College of William & Mary where she teaches a class on health disparities. She conducts research and speaks internationally on postpartum depression, breastfeeding and cultural competency. She is the co-Author of the book The Chronicles of Women in White Coats. Dr. Sriraman is frequently involved with legislative advocacy and has worked with the Governor’s office on having May declared as Maternal Mental Health Month in Virginia. She has received numerous awards for her teaching and research and has received numerous grants.
She loves to run, do yoga, read and spend time with her husband and 4 kids (3 human, 1 canine).