Officials in Argentina, and beyond, are finally taking catcalls more seriously.
The sidewalks of Buenos Aires are a veritable gantlet of wolf-whistles for pretty much any woman who dares to wander them in anything more form fitting than a muumuu. Rare is the woman who doesn’t brave a catcall or two while running to catch the bus. Not to mention comments on your clothing, what feelings your legs might inspire, and what specifically your “admirer” would like to do to you if you paused.
Buenos Aires has a love-hate relationship with piropos—a sort of combination pick-up line and compliment—frequently hurled by men at female passersby. Whether the comments are a colorful custom to be celebrated or a form of gender violence that should be targeted by authorities is a perennial debate. Last year the city’s mayor (and current presidential candidate), Mauricio Macri had to apologize after saying that “deep down, all women like to receive a piropo, even if it’s rude, like ‘what a nice ass you’ve got.’ ”
On the other side of the debate, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner linked piropos to femicide last week, as hundreds of thousands of people marched to demand better protection from violence for women. The sidewalk calls create a setting in which gender violence is normal, Kirchner said via Twitter. She condemned piropo admirers, saying they’re vile rather than complimentary.
Algunas son cotidianas y hasta festejadas: el “piropo?” grosero, soez, bajo, que una piba tiene que “aguantar” porque...— Cristina Kirchner (@CFKArgentina) June 3, 2015
For now, the city seems to be leaning towards the negative interpretation of the phenomenon. And thanks to the efforts of activists, a growing group of Porteños are viewing sexual street harassment as part of a wider spectrum of gender violence. The issue has come to the fore as femicide and violence against women capture headlines in Argentina, where several gruesome murders of women have mobilized the country.
Acción Respeto, an organization started last year to fight street harassment, has 132,000 likes on Facebook. A survey it conducted of women in Argentina shows that over 90 percent have received comments on their appearance and sexuality on the street, and that the vast majority did not like said comments. More than half of the women surveyed said they started getting comments when they were under 15, said Tamara Kallsen, the group’s Buenos Aires coordinator.
Last month one woman's video sharing her experience of harassment from construction workers went viral. In “From Piropo to Rape,” she tells how passing by a construction in front of her house was a daily nightmare, how she asked workers to stop yelling out comments about what they'd do to her ass, how they continued to escalate the comments to the point where she used pepper spray against them, and how difficult it was to get authorities to pay attention to the threat.
Lawmakers are finally listening. Two proposed bills in the city would make such commentary a misdemeanor punishable by up to 1,000 peso fines (about $120) or five days in jail. The bills, which will likely be combined into one, were presented by the Frente para la Victoria alliance in the city’s legislature, and will be wending their way through the legislative process in the upcoming months. A separate law proposed in the national Congress would include such behavior in the criminal code and apply even higher fines.
If passed, the new city laws would create a framework for women’s complaints about sexual harassment in public places to be taken seriously, according to lawmakers. They would apply a wide-ranging definition of verbal sexual harassment; one of the proposals targets lascivious looks, whistles, kisses, honking car horns, panting, indirect sexual comments, and photographing intimate body parts without consent.
Including all these possible piropos is critical to understanding such behavior and allowing women to legally fight back, said city lawmaker Gabriel Fuks, who co-presented one of the bills. He emphasized the importance of creating a protocol for the city’s police to process such reports, which will obligate officers to respond less skeptically than they do now, he said.
Lawmaker Claudia Neira, who co-presented the other bill says the goal is to fight back against “attitudes that have become natural with time, including different kinds of violence that include street harassment.” These issues “must stop being a woman’s problem and become a public issue,” she said.
Both lawmakers predict that women will quickly start using the new legislation to make themselves heard. On a practical level, however, it may be difficult to establish guilt and actually report the perpetrators. Experts have noted that victims of harassment might fear repercussion from pursuing the matter.
The bills also include public-awareness efforts. Last year Acción Respeto launched a campaign reprinting popular piropos, with the tagline: “If it makes you uncomfortable to read it, imagine hearing it.” A common myth that the group seeks to dispel is that women enjoy the compliment, said Kallsen, the group’s Buenos Aires coordinator.
The proposed legislation for Buenos Aires is relatively novel, but it might reflect a regional trend. Peru recently passed South America’s first law against street harassment, and Chile has created an observatory dedicated to the issue. In Paraguay, a proposed law would have penalized street sexual harassment with 180 days in jail.
Yet the problem is by no means limited to Latin American. Hollaback, an activist organization dedicated to street harassment, operates in more than 92 cities in 30 countries around the world. It estimates that a vast majority of women experience street harassment at some point in their lives. Check out this video they made last year of all the commentary a woman can get walking on the street in New York. Looks like Buenos Aires isn’t the only city in need of some new sidewalk decency rules.