“Walk me home” is the result of a project carried out by a team in Tra I Leoni, which focuses on raising awareness and collecting data concerning topics related to safety in the city of Milan and street harassment in general.
Thinking about friends, colleagues, acquaintances, we are able to remember hearing stories about unpleasant experiences, humiliating situations, degrading events. Why does this not bother us? Why has it become normality?
Catcalling and street harassment have become particularly salient issues in the past few weeks, particularly after the resonance the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard had in the United Kingdom. A few days after the heinous crime, social media quickly became flooded with messages of solidarity not only to Everard, but to women in general who, when given the platform, began sharing stories of their own experience. The truth is that while the issue has gathered steam thanks to the attention given to it, it is not new at all.
“I have been self-policing since then. We moderate everything – our clothing, our drinking […] we hold keys between our fingers.” Helena Wadia, a British journalist, did not use half-terms when describing the fear and plight that many girls and women have to endure throughout the world when doing something as routine as coming home from a bar or walking alone in the evening.
However, while these experiences have likely been a daily part of lives in Italy, just like any other country, its exposure in the ‘Belpaese’ has been limited, with jokes on abuse and harassment still very much commonplace in what is considered a macho culture. Its absence from social discourse does not limit its existence, though, as is proven by the repeated pleas by girls to ‘walk them home’ in the evening, and with parents paying particular attention to their daughters’ movements, especially in the darker hours. But street harassment and abuse are not limited to the extreme, albeit relevant and unfortunately far too common, cases of rape and death, but also extends to the ordinary nuisance of sexist and uncomfortable comments that many women receive on a daily basis.
A recent survey run by Tra i Leoni, which received more than 250 responses, – followed by a focus group with some respondents who volunteered – highlights these issues. In fact, out of 160 Bocconi female students surveyed, 149 of them have been in a situation where a stranger has made a comment that made them uncomfortable, and 148 of them have been whistled or honked at in the street. In the words of Alexandra Palaiologou, “it affects all the girls [she] knows”, while still being somewhat of a taboo leading to “not enough attention being paid to the problem”. Perhaps, it is for this reason that over 64% of female respondents believed that if they were to be harassed on public transport, no one would step in to help. Rather concerningly, the wide majority of female respondents stated that whenever out they take a number of actions in order to avoid the various uncomfortable interactions they may face on a daily basis. Anything from crossing the street, avoiding eye contact, avoiding specific areas and talking on a cell phone garnered over 125 positive answers, which out of 160 female respondents adds up to over 78%. The lack of support from bystanders forces girls every day to escape from uncomfortable situations which, in the best scenarios, leads to inconveniences, while in the worst ones also to trauma and potentially dangerous circumstances.
Another major issue raised both by the survey and the focus group, was the overall lack of safety that is perceived in Milan. Almost 50% either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the simple statement of “I feel safe in the city”. Almost 87% claimed that when going out, they first consider who they are going to come home with. Another participant from a subsequent focus group stressed the issue of what is virtually a lack of freedom: “I am 20 and I have the right to go out at night. Unfortunately, it always feels like I have it in theory but not in practice”.
Concerningly, for the community as a whole, the most prevalent emotion when faced with situations of this kind is fear. A fear that is unacceptable in this day and age where equality should be the standard and not a privilege, especially when it comes to daily activities such as simply walking on the street, waiting for a bus or getting back home at night from a bar.
In this regard, it seems evident that institutions play a key role and while they cannot be directly addressed as responsible for such dreadful actions, their silence enhances the distance from the acknowledgment of the severity of these events and of how they should not be happening anymore. Silence may look a lot like compliance: that is what many people (especially males) tend to do. In fact, that silence may actually lead to a place where girls and women feel like their stories should not be shared and heard, a dangerous position for our society, especially if we truly want to change moving forward. It comes across that many girls believe their stories would be undermined and underrated and consequently they decide to keep them for themselves. It’s a twisted society in which people start to adapt to what is imposed by a broader conviction.
As Alexandra stated, “acknowledgment should be a starting point”, the origin of a legacy of education, understanding and sensitivity towards issues that are so serious yet so often undermined.
This problem cannot be contained or controlled, it must be eradicated from its start, and that is why education is seen as the most powerful – perhaps the only – weapon to use in order to fight and tackle these matters.
This research was not meant to be a disposable solution: it won’t change all of a sudden the situation in the streets of Milan (or any other city in the world). Still, it is a starting point, a strong message to anyone who – in 2021 – undermines and ridicules all the phenomena associated with street harassment.
Let’s walk our friends home, but, most importantly, let’s not be the ones that make them afraid to walk home alone. We need to start this change inside of us, a legacy of change for the better to be passed on to future generations.
“Walk me home” should become a choice, not an imposition induced by fear. Let’s make that happen: start acknowledging, start understanding, start questioning all the events that happen around you. By engaging in these actions we are not only stating equality, we are walking towards it