Street Harassment in Egypt & Mirror Neurons

The UN Women‘s Egypt country office just released a new PSA that invites men and boys to see what a day’s worth of street harassment looks like from a woman’s perspective. The slogan is “Put yourself in her shoes, instead of finding ways to blame her.”

This video is part of the “Safe Cities: Free from Violence against Women and Girls” project, which recognizes that sexual harassment in public spaces (street harassment) is a serious problem.

[It] reduces women’s and girls’ freedom of movement. It reduces their ability to participate in school, work and in public life. It limits their access to essential services, and enjoyment of cultural and recreational opportunities. It also negatively impacts their health and well-being… sexual harassment in public spaces remains a largely neglected issue, with few laws or policies in place to prevent and address it.” Source.

The first thing that struck me about this PSA is the fact that it completely breaks from the idea that street harassment is a compliment. Nowhere in this video do you get the sense that the women enjoy it. Instead, the unwanted and harassing nature of the behavior comes across loud and clear. It’s also important to note that the four women in the video are all dressed differently, ranging from secular to religious dress, and yet they are all harassed.

The video starts with a woman in a cab, visibly uncomfortable at the way the driver is ogling her in the rearview mirror. She pulls her jacket around her, trying to cover herself up as much as possible to avoid his invasive gaze. The video then shifts to the viewpoint of another woman walking down a neighborhood street in broad daylight, harassed by a group of teenaged boys who block her path. Then we see through the perspective of a third woman getting on a crowded public transportation van. Within seconds, a man slides his hand onto her leg. She screams at the man, slaps him, and the other passengers start to react to her behavior (they do not appear supportive). The door of the van opens, and we see that she is the one expected to exit for making a fuss – not her harasser. In the last scene, we see through the perspective of a woman being menaced by a group of grown men on the street at night. This is by far the most threatening scene, because the men are grabbing her arms and we see her struggling to escape. We then see the women arriving home, and a voice-over says:

“When you start your day, are you concerned about your safety? Do you worry about what ride to take? And where to walk? Every day she faces humiliation. Anger. She lives in fear and she experiences violence. 90% of women respondents are subjected to sexual harassment in public spaces. Put yourself in her shoes instead of finding ways to blame her. Help to create Safe Cities Free from Sexual Violence against Women and Girls.”

Did you notice that nowhere in the video does it say “stop harassing women”? Instead, it takes an even more direct approach, and asks the viewer to see the experience through a woman’s eyes. The ad shows, and then tells, what a harassment victim experiences: humiliation, anger, fear, and violence. Its goal is to show that women do not enjoy or invite harassment, and that bystanders should be supportive instead of blaming. Countering the attitude that women bring harassment upon themselves is crucial. Even though research done in multiple countries (including the US) proves that women’s dress and behavior is not linked to harassment, the popular belief persists that women invite harassment through the way they dress, the way they walk, etc. In Egypt, there have even been government publications reinforcing this belief.

The overall strategy used in this ad is called “empathy marketing” and it’s grounded in the idea that facts and statistics do not convince people; stories and a sense of connection do. There’s also some serious neuroscience going on here. The way the brain processes images is very different from how it processes words. Showing, as opposed to telling, activates special brain cells called “mirror neurons” that create feelings of empathy. Mirror neurons are the reason we cry at sad movies and get excited about watching sports; they are brain cells that cause us to actually feel the feelings we see in others’ faces and the actions we see in others’ bodies. When you see a the star of a movie collapse into tears and you start to get misty, this isn’t simply because you feel bad for them (sympathy) but because the part of your brain responsible for sadness has activated in response (empathy). You are literally feeling the same sadness. Because we have mirror neurons, we can connect with another person and actually share their experience by watching their face and actions. [To learn more about mirror neurons, check out this fascinating video by NOVA.] It is incredibly powerful. Looking at this PSA again, it’s obvious that every aspect of it calls on our mirror neurons to do their job: first, we go through the harassment experiences literally looking at the world through another person’s eyes. Then, we see the facial expressions of several women matching a list of emotions that are elicited by harassment: humiliation, anger, fear. On a cellular level, we are stimulated to feel what they feel. Nice work, UN Women!

I wish I could find some information on whether this video is running on TV in Egypt, or if there are other ways that it is being distributed. So often, amazing PSAs are launched with no mention of plans for distribution, and it really frustrates me. I’m guessing that with UN Women behind this effort, the offline presence will be significant. If you know anything about how people are seeing campaign on the ground, drop me a line!

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One thought on “Street Harassment in Egypt & Mirror Neurons

  1. Pingback: New Dating Violence PSA Communicates Through Dance | Feminist Messaging Project

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