Features Walthamstow

Take back the High Street

The E17 Street Harassment Photo Project hopes to convey what its like to be sexually harassed on the street
By Victoria Munro

(credit: Hannah Starkey)
(credit: Hannah Starkey)

Three Walthamstow women have created a powerful record of the street harassment experienced by women on a daily basis in E17.

The photo series and accompanying film was created by producer Ruth Board, director Liz Biggs and photographer Hannah Starkey following the death of Sarah Everard in March.

The trio were furious to see that women discussing their experiences in the wake of the shocking murder were still being shut down or mocked online.

In an effort to convey how harassment feels, they began interviewing women about their stories, often in the very locations the incident took place.

(credit: Hannah Starkey)

Liz told the Echo: “One of the things that almost all the women we spoke to said is that they see Waltham Forest as worse [for harassment] than other places they have lived.

“However, we are not saying this is specifically a Waltham Forest or Walthamstow issue. This happens on every High Street and thoroughfare in every town in Britain.

“Whether it’s true or not that Waltham Forest is worse, there’s something more intimidating about being harassed on your doorstep. Women said they were afraid to go home because they didn’t want the guy to know where they lived.

“People would talk about taking longer routes home rather than have to walk past certain cafes or parts of the High Street.”

(credit: Hannah Starkey)

Almost all women interviewed for the project recalled their first experience being harassed on the street happened when they were less than 13 years old, with some being as young as nine.

Ruth said: “We wanted women to talk about how it made them feel because I think some men do it and don’t realise how hurtful and annoying it is.

“Women experiencing harassment do not have a voice. If you try to talk about it, you get trolled or people tell you to get over it but it’s not banter and you shouldn’t have to put up with it.

“A few women spoke about men using their cars to intimidate them, you can’t fight back against somebody in their car. One pregnant woman was followed all the way down Markhouse Road.”

(credit: Hannah Starkey)

However, Ruth noted that a lot of harassment was now harder to spot than the wolf whistles and jeering of her youth because men were deliberately being less “audible and visible”.

She said: “You’ll hear someone saying something to a girl and, when you look around, he will be looking in the other direction. You can also see men pretending they know a girl, in a way that passers-by might not realise they’re being harassed.”

Photographer Hannah said she hoped letting people know how common harassment is would help women “support each other and maybe stamp it out”.

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She said: “When you realise how many women have similar stories at some point in their life, there’s a real power to that collective experience.

“Our film in a way is holding the people that do this accountable in a way women can’t in the street. It’s not bashing men, it’s just a really honest and visceral attempt to articulate how women feel.

“There’s a point in the film that talks about what men can do… even if it’s just to support and listen. We didn’t want to leave men feeling powerless, we wanted them to feel included.”

(credit: Hannah Starkey)

An early version of the film was shown at the E17 Art Trail in July, followed by a panel with speakers that included MP Stella Creasy and council leader Grace Williams.

MP Creasy also recommended the film to the House of Lords last month as they prepared to debate whether to make misogyny a hate crime.

She told the Echo she felt the film was a “powerful and compelling call for action” that would hammer home the need to change how misogyny is policed.

Stella Creasy at the film’s premiere (credit: Jack Barnes)

She said: “As soon as I saw it I knew we had to make every parliamentarian voting on this legislation see it.

“Treating misogyny a hate crime wouldn’t create any new offences but makes plain the risks women face in daily life.

“Its a policy that builds on evidence from across the country of how this helps to tackle violence against women and sends a strong message across society that targeting women isn’t acceptable.”

The council’s cabinet member for community safety, Ahsan Khan, told the Echo the council is “honoured to support a worthy and thought-provoking project like this”.

He said: “We want women and girls in our community to feel safe, in their homes, and on our streets. And to do this we need men to step up, to challenge misogyny, and to play a leadership role in changing the culture that allows street harassment to happen.”

(credit: Hannah Starkey)

He added that the council has also been working with Communities Inc to deliver ‘Stand by Her’ training for men, teaching them to support women and challenge harmful behaviour.

The E17 Street Harassment team plan to continue working on the film and have submitted a bid for funding to create a billboard campaign in the borough’s harassment hotspots.

They also hope to create education packs for local schools, teachers and parents to help them teach young people about street harassment.

Liz added: “I’d love people to share the film and watch it with the men in their lives. This is not behaviour we can change as women, it has to be from men.”

Watch Hoe Street – Tales of Everyday Harassment online here.

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