This is a question I have been pondering after countless number of catcalls. Having received too many unsolicited comments on my clothing, my body parts, and even the very fact that I’m walking down the street and having somewhere to go (“Hey, where are you going? Why are you being so arrogant, missy?”), I could not help feeling uncomfortable and sometimes unsafe to be outside, even if it’s just 200 meter away from my home. At times, I would just avoid walking down the street completely. It is not hard to find women who experience the same thing and react in a similar way.
I had always attempted to ignore these catcallers, in order to avoid further pestering. After a while, I started losing patience and began asking my female friends about how to respond to catcallers. They basically repeated the same thoughts that I had.
“Don’t respond to them,” said one friend. “If you respond, you will be on the same level as they are.”
“They do this because they want response,” said another. “Don’t give them what they want.”
The problem with this suggestion is simply that it often does not work. We always hope that being silent and unresponsive would deter further unwanted attention from these catcallers. However, this does not address the root cause of the grievance. These people will keep commenting to have a laugh with their mates.
One day, I had to walk down the street and immediately found two men who were presumably remarking on the way I walk (“ooh, watch it, sweetie, walking in those shoes will make you slip!”) –without addressing me, obviously. They talked about me as though I wasn’t able to hear the conversation. I wasn’t sure if it was the heat or the long day I was having then, but this time I found the courage to turn back and shout at those guys, “Hey, having fun commenting?”
They immediately tried to act as though they were talking about another thing and dispersed. Apparently, they did not expect me to respond. I was supposed to be their object of gaze, of entertainment. I was not meant to break the fourth wall.
But I did.
I would not advise other women to always clap back at their catcallers. I understand that the situations could be different, and safety concerns should always be prioritised in terms of decision-making. However, the idea that women should remain silent when facing harassment seems to not only condone disrespectful behaviour towards women, but also normalize the prioritization of male perspective and gendered, imbalanced power dynamic in the society. The suggestion that it is women who should change and manage their actions even when the ones who are transgressing are men demonstrates the undeniable inequality we have.
Making the catcallers accountable for their action could be a start to make a difference. Last week, Nottinghamshire police force in the United Kingdom officially included catcalling as one of the categories of hate crime. While some may find this decision extreme, it will ensure that catcallers take responsibility for their own action rather than shifting the blame to the subjects of harassment.
Catcalling is not directly covered in Indonesian laws (although some allusions are made in Articles 286-296 of Criminal Code). Unfortunately, this means that once again we have to take the issue into our own hands. Nevertheless, small, personal actions could indeed motivate new conversations surrounding this phenomenon.
Sometimes silence is golden, but silence could also be perceived as acceptance. When the proper situation arises, speak out and let them know how you feel about their so-called “compliments” or “jokes”. Break the fourth wall and make sure that they understand they are talking at a fellow human being, not an inanimate, insentient object.
As Sharon Carter from Captain America: Civil War says, “Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right, even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye and say, ‘No. You move.’”
Joanita Wibowo is a writer and a Media and Communications student. You may find more of her works here.