Domestic violence. Rape. Sexual assault. So goes the continuum of sexual violence right here, in our region. But one artist is trying to target the problem where it often starts: street harassment.
At the corner of 18th and California streets NW, a portrait of a woman talks back to passers-by: “My name is not BABY, Shorty, Sexy, Sweetie, Honey, Pretty, Boo, Sweetheart, Ma,” answering the same bold-print nerve of uninvited curbside exchanges.
“This was something that I’ve been wanting to do work on for a while now, but I never really could figure out how to manifest a painting out of this idea,” said NYC-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.
Fazlalizadeh primarily deals in oil and canvas painting, capturing social and cultural commentary in portraiture and gallery featured exhibits. But inspired by her recent work in public art, she felt street harassment needed a different treatment. She hopes her poster series will herald an attitude adjustment among catcallers and congressional leaders alike.
“The idea just kind of came to me to work outside, like actual art in the street, because [street harassment] is something that happens outside,” she said.
“I know this is a very particular issue that affects women in general, but most of the portraits that I’m doing are portraits of women of color," she said. She wants to see women of color challenge a narrowly conceived history about their bodies and their unique battles in the context of women’s rights.
After tagging Brooklyn and Philadelphia, Fazlalizadeh ventured into D.C. in mid-December, postering in 10 neighborhoods considered hotspots for street harassment, according to both friends and strangers.
She knew full well their presence might be temporary, and sure enough, by February, only a couple remained.
“I went to D.C. because I’ve spent a good amount of time there," Fazlalizadeh said. "I have friends in D.C., and I also personally experienced street harassment in D.C.”
Renee Davidson, communications director for the Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), formerly Holla Back DC, expressed how important it is to target street harassment. “Sexual harassment and sexual assault -- it’s all on the spectrum of sexual violence,” Davidson said.
“In order to stop sexual violence, you have to get to the root of it,” Davidson said. She identified catcalling and groping -- characteristic of the experiences shared by women on the CASS website -- as part of a larger “rape culture” where objectification breeds more intense acts of sexual violence.
“A lot of times, people don’t take sexual harassment seriously. Some people tend to think of it as a compliment,” Davidson said, pointing to the stories women have shared with CASS about their encounters with street harassment.
“Spend five minutes on our website, and you’ll see,” Davidson said. “Most of the stories talk about women avoiding a certain street. People will say it took them 20 minutes extra to go to work to avoid a car that was following them or a person that was following them. [Street harassment] makes people feel endangered.”
Fazlalizadeh says women have been thanking her profusely for airing their grievances in a way that they often aren't able to.
“A lot of the time, personally, I just keep walking or I don’t say anything,” Fazlalizadeh said.” But there are things that are going through my mind, and there are things that I want to say to these men, but I don’t out of protection of myself,” she said. "I think [the posters speak] for a lot of women who just keep it moving or don’t say anything.”
While Fazlalizadeh is pleased with the feedback women have been giving, she’d really like to see men jump into the conversation, noting the speech on her posters is directed at men.
“I want to know if men asking themselves, ‘Is this something that I’m doing to women? Is this how women really feel?’ What’s the thought process in a man’s mind when they see these posters, because I am trying to, even if in a small way, make some sort of impact socially between men and women,” Fazlalizadeh said.
Like Fazlalizadeh, Davidson believes harassment isn’t simply a women’s issue. "We need their help in this, too,” Davidson said of men. “It’s not that they’re just a part of the problem, but a part of the solution.”
“This is a human rights battle," Fazlalizadeh said. "All we’re asking is to be treated as human beings.”