A new digital platform where women can share their experiences of street harassment through various forms of writing.
by Portia Ladrido
In 2016, End Violence Against Women, a nonprofit organisation in the UK that seeks to protect the welfare of females of all ages, conducted the country’s first street harassment study. It was revealed that “the most striking figure to emerge was that 85% of young women have experienced street harassment, and 45% of young women have experienced it in the form of sexual touching.”
Street harassment is one of the easily undermined acts of violence that is still prevalent across societies today. And while statistics may be good to know, Scherezade Siobhan, a therapist and clinical psychologist by profession, seeks to give a face to this statistic by helping women share and process their stories of harassment through the written word. With The Mira Project, she is able to, at the very least, provide a platform for girls and women across all cultures to express their experiences in however form they like. As she is also a writer and a poet, a lot of the writing that she creates deals with aspects of trauma and mental health, and The Mira Project has become a venue that has interlaced not only her cognitive and creative side but also her womanhood.
Siobhan talks to INKLINE about The Mira Project, what it has meant for the women who share their stories, and the most satisfying thing about working on the platform.
INKLINE: What nudged you into creating a platform that specifically addresses the issue of street harassment?
Scherezade Siobhan: In 2016, after speaking with a couple of young people who were writers and people I met through my therapeutic practice, I recognised that street harassment was very common globally, but it is also one of the least addressed issues in terms of people not taking it seriously.
It’s considered to be ‘Boys will be boys,’ ‘Right of passage,’ or that ‘It’s a traditional, cultural thing.’ But it has had a very drastic impact on women who have experienced it. I wanted to create a space where women, women-identified or gender non-conforming folks can speak about street harassment and its impact on mental health. And that’s how it started in 2016. That was the idea, to give people a space to tell their stories and let them feel that they owned their stories as opposed to just being a statistic in street harassment or violence.
I: Have you seen that there’s a common thread in these women’s stories, even if say they come from varying contexts?
S: When I started doing this, when I opened the space, I said, ‘However, people wanted to express themselves — whether they wanted to use expressive art or to write poems or stories, any which way that people wanted to express themselves — they’re welcome to use the space.’ And, what I’ve seen as a common thread that sort of intwines through all the stories, no matter what culture or country or what racial or economic demographic a woman belongs to, is that there is always an underlying fear for women when they get out in a public space.
I’ve gotten stories from people in Cairo, Edinburgh, Delhi, Mauritius and it doesn’t matter what country they come from. At the back of their heads, I think every single woman, when she steps out, there is that tiny voice which says, ‘How safe will I be today?’ From a considerably small act of violence, which is catcalling (people assume it’s a small act) or to something even more severe. But all of them deal with it.
An interesting theme is that I ask a lot of people questions. I invite people to fill up a five statement questionnaire. These are basically incomplete statements like ‘On a dark night walking alone,’ and there are no other clauses to it, it’s just a simple statement.
And almost every single woman that I’ve spoken to via The Mira project, finishes that statement with some form fear or trepidation. All of them always finish the statement with ‘I will look for my keys’ or ‘Walk fast’ or ‘Keep an eye out if somebody is following me.’
I’ve asked the same question to men, and they almost always respond with ‘Oh I would enjoy the walk’ or ‘I’d hope it would rain.’ Very different.
I: Was there a specific event in your life that led you to create The Mira Project?
S: I wanted to do something in the space of digital story-telling for women specifically, or for marginalised people. But I wasn’t very sure what it would look like. There was a catalysing event, which was talking to someone who liked my poem, a young girl from the UK. She was just 17. She reached out to me one fine evening and spoke about her own experience of being harassed on the street a couple of times. And she said, whoever she spoke to, whether it was her therapist or her parents or other people in the family, they all made it sound like it was just a part and parcel of growing up.
What I’ve seen as a common thread that sort of intwines through all the stories, no matter what culture or country or what racial or economic demographic a woman belongs to, is that there is always an underlying fear for women when they get out in a public space.
She said that it had left a scarring impact on her and this happened when she was really young when she was 11 or 12. And I could immediately identify with that because a very similar thing happened to me when I was about 11 or 12 when I was followed by somebody on the street while walking to a friend’s house. So, I started speaking to women in my life — friends, aunts, colleagues — and I started asking, ‘Did you ever experience anything akin to this?’
And I was just so shocked — on some level, I expected it — that all of us as young girls, ages 9, 10, 11 or 12, all of us had experienced something similar. We have never been given the space to process it because it’s about growing up and forgetting it, or not fighting against it. And I thought that it was high time that we created something where people would have the space to talk about it.
I: What do you think has been the effect of The Mira Project for women? Has it been some sort of a catharsis for them?
S: One of the things that I strongly believe in is that conversations enable communities and then communities come together and then you get a shared catharsis. So when you feel that you’re isolated in your experience or that you alone have been victimised, it’s much harder to deal with, but when you find comrades, when you find a sense of friendship amongst people, I think it comes a little easier to deal with. I think it also easier to channel your energy and become more action-oriented rather than just think about what happened.
A lot of times you can’t do much about it, you can’t go back and change what happened. But if you’re given the space in which you can process it, a lot of people write to us in the shape of essays and poetry, a lot of people feel like a burden has been lifted off of them. A lot of people who read it have written to me and said that they have felt a connection in that moment with the person who wrote it.
I: What has been the most satisfying thing about the work that you do with this platform?
S: When I started, I just wanted to give people a space to tell their stories. But as it started getting bigger, and started getting more e-mails, I recognised that there were a lot of people writing to me, and so I decided that we have to make stories that we’re getting and make it more interdisciplinary, so we started doing reading circles and poetry performances. We just did the first ever women-led poetry circle in Mumbai, an open mic for women poets that dealt with the subject of gender, mental health of women, and public spaces.
I don’t want to exclude men or male-identified folks. What I want for them is to participate as witness, as listeners.
We had men who were sitting in the audience listening to this. For me, it was very satisfying to watch that. That’s the other thing that I want. I don’t want to exclude men or male-identified folks. What I want for them is to participate as witnesses, as listeners, and I think at one point in time, when I look at the people in the audience, particularly the men, I saw that sort of mixture of disgust and anger and pain when the women were reading. So I knew that they understood, that it’s an issue that’s much deeper than what they think it is. That’s very satisfying.
We’re also working on a series of workshops for young people and students, particularly in less privileged areas. We wanted to talk about consent, body image — things that contribute to street harassment, which is basically stereotyping women and femininity. So we are trying to kind of come up with actual content for schools and for those spaces where education happens.