21st Century Street Harassment: Sneaky Snapshots On Public Transportation
Imagine getting on a local bus or subway car knowing the possibility exists that someone will take your picture and upload it online for viewers to comment on your appearance—all without your permission. Creepy, huh? It’s the new reality for women in Buenos Aires.
By Sharon Haywood, Co-Editor
Last Thursday, May 24th after boarding bus 39 during rush-hour traffic in the Argentine capital, I pushed to the back of the crowded bus where I gratefully claimed a small bubble of personal space all to myself. With one hand on my purse and the other clutching a pole, I scanned the faces of my fellow passengers and stiffened, remembering what my friends at Hollaback! Buenos Aires alerted me to earlier that day: A Facebook page, called Chicas Bondi, roughly translated to “Bus Girls,” pleases its 8000+ fans and counting by posting photos of young Argentine women that are taken surreptitiously on specific bus lines. Bus 39 was one of them. Even though I didn’t fit all the characteristics of a chica bondi (I’m white, but not young and skinny), I still felt uncomfortable; I couldn’t be 100% sure a voyeur wasn’t sneaking a shot of me with his cell phone.
The page owners, who conveniently choose to remain anonymous, defend their actions under the guise of being “art” (giving me serious flashbacks to our Monster campaign, in which violent sexual images of women in a Kanye West video were also justified in the name of “art”). They claim to offer an alternative face of beauty, in contrast to the T&A that is typically shown on some Argentine mainstream television shows. It’s a bit of stretch to believe their argument considering the women who unknowingly become their models all share the same skin color, body type, and age group.
Their tagline, “sin pose y sin permiso/without posing and without permission”, based on fans’ comments, seems to be the biggest pull to the page. The page owners generously stated that if a woman wanted her picture removed, they would graciously do so. What seemed to escape them is that by putting women in the public gaze as objects to be consumed without their knowledge could put some women in danger: when a picture is posted, the bus route is also included, potentially making them targets of harassment. Apart from such risks, this practice is a violation of privacy, plain and simple.
Fortunately, while I was shuddering at the thought of being secretively caught on film, Hollaback! Buenos Aires was knee-deep in a public dialogue on Facebook with Chicas Bondi that shone a light on these issues. I was impressed with both Hollaback, in its readiness to educate, and with Chicas Bondi, who recognized value in its arguments. They reached an agreement in which Chicas Bondi agreed to no longer publish any photos of women without their explicit consent; they have since updated the page to reflect this commitment. Although I’m not doing cartwheels about the existence of the page, I had appreciated the open-mindedness on the part of Chicas Bondi—until I was blocked.
For obvious reasons, I hadn’t ‘liked’ the page but I still had the option of liking and commenting on posts. After connecting and conversing extensively with the folks at Hollaback! Buenos Aires, (as well as with my colleagues at Adios Barbie and AnyBody Argentina), I publicly thanked Chicas Bondi for their change in policy on behalf of both organizations. The response was disheartening: “I’m not doing you a favor, I’m doing it for myself.” (I later discovered that Chicas Bondi had been recently approached to turn the project into a film but the filmmakers said permission from the women was necessary.) Shortly thereafter, my comment was erased and I was banned. Having no recourse on Facebook, I moved over to Twitter where I discovered they had tweeted that they erased “inappropriate” comments and banned such users. When I expressed my confusion, Chicas Bondi stated that my expression of gratitude was viewed as spam, and went on to say that being in dialogue with three feminists was more than enough. My gratitude quickly dissipated.
After many long deep breaths, venting to my colleagues, and a grounding conversation with the founder of Hollaback! Buenos Aires, Inti Maria Tidball-Binz, I can still appreciate that, despite the page owners’ motivations, we have taken a positive step forward. Unsuspecting Argentine women who now find themselves digitally captured will be afforded the basic right of being able to provide consent. Rest assured that we will be monitoring the page and doing our best, without further compromising the privacy of the women, to ensure that permission has been obtained. By no means do we endorse the page and still view it as what it is—a vehicle to objectify women—but at the very least, these women now have a voice.