Helena Horton | Contributing Writer | Thursday, 13 August 2015

‘We Live In A Culture Where 51% Of The Population Are Harassed And Objectified’ Why Stella Creasy Is Fighting Catcalling In Walthamstow

Here's How Stella Creasy Is Fighting Catcalling In Walthamstow

The Debrief: Catcalling is sexual harassment - yet politicians consistently fail to take it seriously. Stella Creasy is on a mission to change that...

If you’re a woman in the UK, then it’s statistically quite likely that a man will shout something at you, harass you or make you feel unsafe at some point in your life. A YouGov survey found that 43% of young women in London had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces in the space of a year.

But what are we supposed to do about it? If you’re Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, then you tackle it head on.

‘The issue we have [in Walthamstow] is that women are being forced off this main road because they’re feeling intimidated by all the male attention they receive,’ Creasy explains to The Debrief. ‘Large groups of men congregate outside cafés and shout and leer at women who walk down the street.

‘It’s become a place where you don’t normally see a lot of women. I’ve been trying for two years to change that, to get the police and the council to take notice, as this affects all women in Walthamstow, regardless of race or age.’

Creasy has been fighting, with women in her constituency and the help of a community group called ‘Women of Walthamstow, taking back our streets’ to get the authorities to sit up and notice. And yesterday she was joined by around 15 women (in a café that’s usually dominated by men) to discuss the issue.

‘If a café is too noisy, or there’s mess, they get in trouble for anti-social behaviour. Why can’t this be applied to sexist behaviour? We’re struggling to raise awareness, because when women complain, they’re being told that catcalling is normal.

‘I’ve done a lot of work in Parliament about this, and am constantly asked why I don’t focus on “bigger issues” like domestic violence, but this is all part of a culture that needs to change. We live in a culture where 51% of the population are harassed and objectified, and this fosters an environment for these bigger issues.’

We’re struggling to put an end to it because when people complain, they’re told that being catcalled is normal

This has been an issue for the women of Walthamstow for years – and something that’s constantly raised with the MP by Creasy’s constituents. But Creasy thinks that this echoes a country-wide problem. ‘It all comes from male entitlement. We’re struggling to put an end to it because when people complain, they’re told that being catcalled is normal.

‘Gender is a protected characteristic, but sexual harassment directed at women is never viewed as a hate crime in the way that racial abuse or other hate crimes are.’

The Women of Walthamstow group, Creasy, and some female councillors are trying to make the cafes accountable for the men who loiter outside and harass women, by asking the council to threaten their licensing on anti-social behavior grounds.

Creasy also wants more police patrols at night, and to implement a third-party reporting system, so problem areas can be flagged up by women in the community, and they can be brought to police attention.

But Creasy is worried that the authorities have made it about race rather than sexism. An email from the police to Creasy made this clear:  ‘In respect of the groups of males hanging around in the street, I believe this is partly a cultural issue as it’s common for Algerian males to gather at cafes without the women from the community being there.’

But speaking to some of the women of Walthamstow, it’s clear that the issue is so much more than that. Forty-four-year-old Denise Sam told us that ‘men catcall and leer at my 15 and 19-year-old daughters right in front of me. When I complain, I get abuse, and am often called a bitch. It really affects our daily lives and makes us feel unsafe.’

It’s not just shouting and leering either. Thirty-two-year-old Alice Speller said: ‘I was walking down the road, and there was a man pleasuring himself in plain sight, in front of schoolchildren.’

This isn’t a race issue, it’s sexual harassment, pure and simple. But why has Stella, who already has form for speaking out about Everyday Sexism and helped draft legislation on stalking and sexual harassment on a national level, chosen to tackle this at such a local level?

I haven’t spoken to any other MPs who are working on this issue in a similar way

For starters, Creasy is a very well-known and well-liked figure in her constituency. Working in an area she knows well, with women she knows well, she’s better placed to tackle the issue than some other MPs – most of whom have been all-too-quiet on the matter.

‘I haven’t spoken to any other MPs who are working on this issue in a similar way. Women around the country have spoken out about sexual harassment – just look at Everyday Sexism – and this must be something that can be stopped. If this were about noise or mess, we wouldn’t be seeing an issue anymore,’ she says.

Saima Mahmud, the Mayor of  Walthamstow, thinks some progress is being made. ‘Local councillors from the different wards along Hoe Street are very much aware, as are the Safer Neighborhood Teams, and are lobbying for initiatives to deal with it. There have been unannounced visits made by the police to the cafes along Hoe Street to speak to the owners about problem customers.’

So things are moving – but does Creasy believe she can eradicate catcalling from Walthamstow once and for all? ‘I don’t know for certain if what we are doing in Walthamstow will work, but we have to try something to get this culture to end.’

The big question is, if Creasy, the female councillors and the hundreds of women fighting for change in her constituency can manage to change the culture in Walthamstow, then can this shift happen in the rest of the UK?

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Follow Helena on Twitter @horton_official

Tags: Politics