The mean streets? Harassment of women on the sidewalks of Tel Aviv

In Tel Aviv, is harassment of women a ‘cultural phenomenon,’ merely a pesky problem or even a compliment?

Streets of Tel Aviv (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Streets of Tel Aviv
On a warm October day almost two years ago, a young Jewish woman named Shoshana Roberts embarked on a remarkable journey. Dressed simply in jeans and a black crew-neck T-shirt, Roberts took a walk through the streets of New York City. Eyes ahead of her, not interacting with anyone, the 24-year-old actress walked for some 10 hours, drawing the unwanted attention of men as she passed by.
Among the remarks made by men along her route were “How you doing today?”, “Smile!”, “What’s up, beautiful? Someone’s acknowledging you for being beautiful! You should say ‘thank you’ more!”, “Damn!”, “Hey baby!”, “Hey beautiful!”, “How are you this morning?”, “Nice!”, “Sweetie?” “What’s up, miss?”, “Have a nice evening, darling!”, and “Hey, look it there! I just saw a thousand dollars!” One young man walked alongside her silently for five minutes. Another young man also walked alongside her, this time not silently, subjecting her to a walking diatribe that went like this: “You don’t want to talk?... Because I’m ugly?... Huh?... We can’t be friends, nothing?... You don’t speak? If I give you my number would you talk to me?... Too ugly for you?”
Roberts’s walk through the streets of New York was recorded by a hidden camera, placed in the backpack of a male ‘co-conspirator’ walking in front of her, and produced by Hollaback!, an international organization dedicated to fighting street harassment of women.
The resulting video, “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman,” was posted on YouTube on October 28, 2014, and immediately went viral, receiving 23 million views and more than 100,000 comments in three days. To date, the video has drawn upwards of 40 million views.
In the course of that 10-hour walk, Roberts received no fewer than 108 catcalls – a number which the video’s producers say does not include an uncounted number of winks, whistles, appraising looks and suggestive gestures.
Although made in New York, this video, Hollaback! says, could be replicated almost anywhere on earth.
Including, it would appear, Tel Aviv.
According to a 2011 survey sponsored by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality’s committee for advancing the status of women, in conjunction with the Shatil organization, 83 percent of a 500-woman sample reported being harassed at least once in their lifetime, of whom 96% reported that their harassment had occurred on the streets, or more broadly, in the public sphere. Forty-five percent said they were sexually harassed on public transportation, 30% said they were harassed on the beach, 20% in a park or public garden; and 19% in a public market.
The most common forms of harassment, according to the survey, were whistling in the street, drivers beeping their car horns, knowing looks, suggestive remarks, and inappropriate proposals, along with touching and stalking.
These findings were reinforced this March by a study published by the Na’amat women’s organization, in which 68% of adolescent girls said they had been harassed on the street at least once by a man they didn’t know, while 45% said this happened more than once.
Moreover, 47% of adolescent boys admitted that they had shouted out on the street to a woman or girl they did not know, and around 34% owned up to having done this more than once.
The 2011 study, however, raises the issue of ambiguity in harassment, which many continue to see as a gray area. Forty- five percent of the women surveyed reported being harassed by a man in the public sphere – before various forms of harassment were described to them.
Then, when asked directly about acts like whistling, appraising looks and suggestive remarks, the number of women claiming to have been sexually harassed almost doubled, jumping dramatically up to 83%. The survey researchers noted that some acts usually defined as “harassment” are not thought of as such by all women. My own very informal inquiries about street harassment caused several young women to reply that “it depends on what you mean by harassment.”
So, what is “street harassment,” and what is not? According to Dr. Inbal Wilamowski, an expert on the issue of sexual harassment and gender, “The law defines it as someone repeatedly doing something or saying something to you that you don’t like. But we use a broader definition, which includes the whole practice of staring, cursing, saying inappropriate things about you, pointing to your gender, pointing at your appearance, making you an object – an object on the street that anyone can talk to or make a comment about. Women are afraid to walk in the street, because they get this all the time.”
With a PhD in criminology and 15 years a lecturer in that field at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Wilamowski also teaches at the Hebrew University’s Lafer Center for Women Studies and Gender Research. She is also part of the team at Hollaback! Israel, one of numerous local branches of the organization throughout the world that operate primarily on the Internet (
The name of the organization, she explains, means “holler back,” and it provides women with an online forum to shout back, share their experiences, and learn to assert their equal right with men to public space – the right, according to their website, “to go anywhere feeling safe, and not as a moving target.”
Asked if something is “harassment” if the woman thinks it’s harassment, Wilamowski replies, “Yeah, this is part of the broader definition.
If it harasses you, it harasses you. There’s always the excuse some men use that says, “I’m not harassing her. I just want to get to know her.” But you can’t get to know a girl if you say to a stranger, “Wow! What a nice dress!” When asked, however, if it’s harassment if a young woman walking down the street sneezes and some man smiles and says “Bless you,” Wilamowski says, “No. I don’t think so. Harassment is pointed at the woman’s gender or sexuality. Even telling a woman on the street to smile. All their lives, from the time they are little girls, women are told to smile, to look happy.
Telling a woman to smile is not sexual harassment, but gender harassment, and part of all kinds of street comments that tell a woman that the public sphere is not her place, not a place to be herself.
If she’s out in public, then those comments tell her that she is expected to be an ornament, a pretty object.”
Wilamowski argues that there is no “typical” street harasser, no clear profile, and that the problem cuts across all age groups and backgrounds. “It’s simply a cultural phenomenon,” she says.
“I don’t condone it, but I also see that sometimes it’s not completely a boy’s fault. It’s a cultural phenomenon where boys are taught that it’s somehow okay to, say, whistle at girls. It’s the culture that is teaching them that it’s okay. And that’s what I think has to change. It’s not just some sort of psychological thing that is making a man do this. It’s the culture.”
Are street harassers always male?
“As someone who studies the phenomenon academically, I wouldn’t say ‘always,’ but mostly,” she says. Asked if women are always the victims, Wilamowski replies that while most victims are women, members of the LGBTQ community also frequently find themselves victims of harassment on the street.
It’s quite likely that almost everyone who has read this far is already wondering how “well” or “poorly” Israel compares with other countries in terms of street harassment. One young woman, who asked to remain anonymous, offered the opinion that “Israel is bad, but not nearly as bad as Italy.” Other women I asked mentioned other countries where they say they experienced street harassment that was worse than what they have had to cope with here.
Wilamowski however, says, “I think it’s mostly the same. Based on Hollaback’s research from several countries, which you can see on the website, it’s generally the same all over the world.”
Interestingly enough, however, Wilamowski sees the street harassment of “immodestly dressed” women by ultra- Orthodox men in Israel to be something a bit different from the usual. It is “street harassment,” she says, but not “sexual harassment in the street.”
She explains, “It’s not always sexual harassment, it’s street harassment, which means, ‘You don’t belong here. You should act by our rules.’ And in Jerusalem it’s bound up with political problems, so street harassment is a tool for all kinds of groups to assert control over space. We see this also in places like South Tel Aviv, where a lot of different groups are mixed together, street harassment of women is a way for some of these different groups to assert their control over public space.”
However, others find this less than comforting, still asserting that despite the reasons behind it, “harassment is harassment.”
For Wilamowski, the solution to the problem of street harassment is first to be aware of it. “Then we need to let women know that they are not the cause of the problem, that they should never blame themselves, that they have power, and that they can react,” she says. But even more important, she adds, is to educate young men to respect women, both in public and in private.