The menace of street harassment and reclaiming women’s bodies in public spaces | The YNaija Special Series on #RapeCulture

Street harassment can be defined as all forms of unwanted comments, contact and actions forced on strangers in public. It can range from being assaulted, verbally abused, being followed, having your path blocked, being whistled at, being sexually touched or grabbed, being a target of public masturbation etc.

Street harassment happens all around the world and Nigeria is no exception. Here, street harassment is so commonplace, many can barely imagine a world without it. Anyone can be harassed on the street; both women and men experience different degrees of street harassment. However, the reasons, impact and frequency vary between men and women. The power dynamics between men and women means that women face it significantly more frequently, more violently and more collectively that men on average, so much so that it’s incomparable.

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While people are harassed for many reasons such as social class, disability and religion, in Nigeria, preconceived notions of gender and sexuality are a very major factor at play in street harassment being normalized as a cultural thing. Gender-non-conforming men experience this sort of harassment much more than the average man. They are harassed in public for their non-conformance and perceived sexuality. Women are harassed for simply existing. Street harassment is ultimately about gender-based control and power. It’s about what gender or sex class belongs where.

In a patriarchal society like Nigeria, women are expected to not just be positioned at home, but to also embrace domesticity and be intentional about leaving the streets and all places of public decision making for men to occupy. Street harassment is specific violence aimed at reminding women that a woman’s place is not to be boldly visible. This is why patriarchal cultures and societies embolden perpetrators through compliance and victim-blaming.

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For us women, to be visible is to be harassed, consumed and our personhood dismissed. The sadly common occurrence of women getting harassed on the streets, is a way to remind those who society prefers to hide to do just that—hide. It is an unfortunate public service announcement aimed at women to stay home. Markets are the most public of spaces because we all need to go there every once in a while.

For many traditions in Nigeria, the market squares are of immense social implications, and in contemporary Nigeria, market places still carry a lot of socio-economic significance. People of all classes and social status visit the market. When gender-based street harassment occurs in the Market – the most public of spaces, society is basically blatantly showing disregard for a class of people. If in the most public of spaces, we’re not free to exist freely without fear of harassment, then how can we truly be convinced that we have a legitimate place in this society.

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Ironically, it is a known fact West Africa and in particular Nigeria has been a hotbed for commerce and trade for centuries. It is not just any culture of trade but one that has historically being defined and maintained by women. In most West African countries, market women have had and continue to have strong stakes in politics, tradition and more. This is why we must remind ourselves that not only have Nigerian women existed in these spaces, we were integral to their growth and success thereby making market spaces rightfully ours too. We have a right to sit at the tables our foremothers built. We must denounce the anti-woman compliance that rape culture feeds. The very one that alienates us and limits our freedom.

Rape culture is ultimately linked to this street harassment as both are cut from the same fabric. In December 2018, I organized the first Market March and led a group of women marchers around Yaba Market,  a market particularly notorious in it’s targeted harrasment of young women buyers. While marching and demanding an end to the harassment of women at Yaba/Tejuoshomarket, we got the same rape apologist rhetorics. “It’s what the women wear;” “It’s how they’re dressed;” “ Why doesn’t she just stay at home?” and even, “We must touch!”. It’s the same irrational entitlement to women’s bodies, the same intentionality towards male dominance and even more dangerously, it is the same reminder that where women can be is limited to what men permit. Street harassment as common as it is is a much bigger deal than we care to admit.

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Maybe I’m a little extreme but, I see street harassment in itself as a kind of collective rape threat aimed at women as a class. It’s saying: “Women, your agency, desires, and boundaries would not be respected here in broad daylight even in front of everybody.”  It’s saying: “If you are a woman and you dare fail to comply, your experiencing violence is not only non-negotiable; It is a given.”  It is an option if you don’t comply.

When women are not being blamed for the street harassment they face, they are being told and essentially gaslit with terms like, “It’s just a harmless joke; A small inconvenience; A compliment or worse still: “It’s just a trivial annoyance.” These phrases couldn’t be any farther from reality. On a collective level, street harassment reminds women and LGBTQ people that we don’t belong, and on an individual level, this takes a psychological toll. Street harassment starts around puberty on average, and girls are harassed in the streets from as early as 10.

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In 2008, an informal international study was carried out online, and almost 1 in 4 women had experienced street harassment by age 12 and nearly 90% by age 19. What this means is that, when girls first start getting any independence as human beings, the age bracket when they can finally get some permission to go out by themselves and spend some time with friends, they have to navigate this experience while facing the harsh reality that they can’t even walk the street in peace. Imagine the self-consciousness, the pressure, the fear, the shame, the embarrassment that comes with this. It’s a kind of trauma and phobia women have to live with almost all our life.

Street harassment is a serious human rights issue as it is a result of a violently patriarchal, misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic society. It significantly limits a person’s freedom and affects their sense of self. It has to end, and we all have a part to play in ending it as well as assuring women and LGBTQ people that they belong in every aspect of social and economic life. To play our part, we must acknowledge that street harassment is never “a compliment, just some trivial annoyance or a woman’s fault.” It is inexcusable, and as a people we must be unapologetically committed to holding men and boys accountable for their actions.

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The truth is, the first sign that Nigerian society is truly ready about gender equality and actually “Saying No To Rape”—a phrase which is commonly said on social media often without any in-depth meaning and call to action by those saying it—is Nigerian women and girls not having to psychologically prepare against harrassment before embarking on a market trip to buy clothes or food.


The YNaija #RapeCulture Special Series runs from September 15th to September 30th. Visit YNaija.com/Specials to catch up on all essays and excerpts from our Instagram interviews.

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