Street harassment Should Not Rule Our Streets

A blog post by iHollaback! Ottawa director Julie Lalonde

I moved to Ottawa in the summer of 2003. Like a lot of people, I came to Ottawa to pursue an education. In my case, I just never left. I love this city, I love what it has to offer; we could really use a decent beach, though.

But when I moved here in 2003, I was excited, nervous and ready to take on my studies and determined to get as much out of the ‘Big City’ as I could. The late summer and early fall are exciting times for university towns. There’s a buzz in the air as the highways are full of U-Haul trucks and the Market is abuzz with students hitting the bar scene.

The air was different in 2003, though. When I moved here, the City was reeling over the disappearance and (eventually discovered) murder of graduate student Ardeth Wood.  Her murder really shook Ottawa and had many people on high alert as they searched for her killer. She was murdered in broad daylight on a bike path; a path many people I knew had previously enjoyed but now stayed away. The fact that was abducted in broad daylight really shook a society that still believes that bogeyman are predators in the dark.

In my case, I was living with another young woman. ‘Emma’ and I talked a lot about Ardeth’s disappearance and how terrible it was. I specifically remember one conversation. We were sitting around breakfast and reading an article in the ‘Ottawa Citizen’. It included details of Ardeth’s abduction and had ‘tips’ for fellow citizens. It was the usual business: Travel in pairs, avoid specific areas, you know, the usual stuff. (That completely glosses over the fact that Ardeth was in a busy area, in broad daylight or the fact that 80-90% of people experience violence at the hands of people they know. But you know, I digress).

I distinctively remember my room mate having a ‘Fuck that’ attitude. ‘I won’t change a damn thing about my life just because some sick fucker wants to institute fear in us. Well, I won’t do it’ she said. And I thought that was pretty bold and quite frankly, badass.

Cut to a few weeks later. We’re downtown, at night, walking down Rideau street, desperately trying to find this freakin’ book store where I  needed to get a textbook. It was dark and it was hot, so we were wearing short shorts, tank tops and flip flops. Marching up and down Rideau, trying to locate this place, a group of men sitting on the side of the road started yelling at me. I can’t remember exactly what they said but I just remember getting that distinct ‘Get your back up’ feeling and I just kept looking ahead and walking. What made this different was that my room mate whispered ‘Tie up your hair’.

She wasn’t saying ‘Tie your hair’ for fear that they’d pull it, or grab me by it or anything like that. She said ‘Tie up your hair’ because she felt that my long, free flowing ‘do was drawing attention to us.

Even though I’ve had more ‘severe’ street harassment incidents (Including the infamous choking on the bus), I distinctly remember this one. I remember how ‘Emma’ was resolved to not change her life, her movements, her words because of the fear that one man put in this city. I remember thinking how revolutionary that was; how fucking badass. But then I saw that being blatantly contradicted in that moment when it wasn’t about intellectual discussions of ‘safety tips’ but about surviving in that very moment. It was visceral. ‘If you tie up your hair, we won’t have creepy dudes yelling at us in the street at night on Rideau’.

I didn’t blame her in that moment and I don’t blame her now. I still think her words were badass and that she meant them. But I couldn’t help but get angry at a world in which I was made to feel that my long blonde hair was a target, rather than an expression of who I am.

I was angry then and I’m angry now that as women, we must continue to alter our behaviour, our appearance, our demeanor, just to try and avoid harassment. I’m angry that creeps made ‘Emma’ lose her resolve and Ardeth lose her life. I don’t see equality here.

One response to “Street harassment Should Not Rule Our Streets

  1. Well said! Especially the ending where you say “I was angry then and I’m angry now that as women, we must continue to alter our behaviour, our appearance, our demeanor, just to try and avoid harassment.” It’s unfortunate that as women we often have to avoid full expression (or heat stroke) in order not to be targeted!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *