Holla back, we love you!

This week I saw two fantastic videos, dealing with two completely different topics.  What draws them together in my mind is that they are both symbols of movements that are using new media  in innovative ways, taking back public discourse and claiming a place for dissent in public space.

The first video, “Shit Men Say to Men who Say Shit to Women on the Street,” is a funny but smart play on the long-dead Shit Girls Say meme.  By modeling men publicly calling out other men for harassing women on the street, it speaks out against cultural discourse that makes street harassment acceptable.  It was produced as part of International Anti-Street Harassment Week, which is this week!

Street harassment affects women across the world.  I’ve experienced it in the US and the Middle East, and in both places and many more, the unsolicited comments, touching, or even violence that women experience greatly gender public space.  For many women, the street is an uncomfortable, unwelcoming, even prohibited place where they cannot expect to feel safe from objectification or harassment.  In an article on the great blog Gender Across Borders, Fatma El-Nahry says that street harassment contributes to a cultural atmosphere in which women are always in a state of fear for their safety, while men feel entitled to women’s bodies.  As El-Nahry says:

“Despite claims made by men, harassment is not a harmless, direct reaction by men to women, but an institutionalized system of violence that functions to police women’s participation, freedom of movement, and behavior in public spaces. It is not how women behave in the public sphere that makes them vulnerable to street harassment; it is that they have chosen to enter the public sphere at all.”

This is a problem that is hard to create effective policy to address.  It happens quickly, on the street, in passing.  It’s hardly ever reported, and our culture (and most cultures) accepts it as just what you get for being a woman.  That’s why I’m so excited and inspired by efforts to harness the power of new media to take back public space.  Hollaback is  a movement with branches in over 45 cities and 16 countries trying to end street harassment by crowdsourcing documentation of it.  They collect and share stories of women’s experiences and use them to break the silence on street harassment.  They launched iPhone and Droid apps to help women document their experiences.  Tomorrow, they’re launching I’ve Got Your Back!, a place on their website to map bystander intervention.

With a wealth of information, Hollaback can be a huge resource to identify the problem and formulate effective policy.  But what really strikes me is how Hollaback is using the new opportunities afforded by social media and mobile technology to take action against something that usually puts the victim in a powerless position.  It allows women who have been objectified to reclaim their agency and dignity.  The producers of the video above are not affiliated with Hollaback, but the two are both responding to actions that marginalize women in public space by claiming a position in the new public space of social media to contest culture.  Social media and mobile technology are incredibly powerful tools that women and men are harnessing to create spaces for voices that street harassment silences.

The second video is of Israeli graphic designer Ronny Edry, the man behind a viral peace campaign reaching out to Iranians to tell them that ordinary Israelis don’t want war.  Israelis who participate have been superimposing the text “Iranians, We will never bomb your country, We love you” over pictures of themselves and posting them on Facebook.  A few days after the campaign took off, Iranians started sending images back saying “Israelis, We love you back.”

In the midst of escalating tensions between Israel and Iran, as government rhetoric is becoming increasingly heated calling for a war, I was incredibly moved to see such a simply and powerful message of love.  It circumvents warmongering rhetoric on both sides and fights against the discourse that so often rises in times of war, vilifying and demonizing the other.  It reminds people on both sides that wars destroy and devastate the lives of people much like ourselves.

The campaign is another example of social media empowering people to break down barriers and take ownership of discourse.  I can’t imagine an earlier historical or technological context in which two peoples were so able to communicate across borders, or a forum in which that could occur.  The traditional media’s occupation with escalating aggressive discourse makes it seem that war will be inevitable.  It’s easy to lose track of the fact that a majority of Israelis don’t want to go to war.  As with Hollaback, this campaign is taking advantage of a new public space to allow dissenting voices to be heard, challenging the dominant discourse across borders.

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