By Lanie Rivera
Female artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh used her artwork, rather than her voice, to speak out against public sexual harassment in large cities including Washington, D.C. In the past few weeks, Fazlalizadeh has hung posters with sketched black and white portraits of women and an anti-harassment message printed near the bottom.
She targeted the areas where the message of her art would be most effective – in the places where she and others have faced harassment or locations with frequent foot traffic. Fazlalizadeh told the Washington Square News (WSN):
” ‘To me, it made the most sense to create art in the street and in public spaces where this type of harassment is happening.’ “
Fazlalizadeh told WSN that her goal is to spur conversation about the harassment issue as well as publicize the thoughts and feelings of women who experience harassment:
” ‘I’m hoping that those people will at least listen to and consider the experiences of women who do support this project, women who feel offended and violated by the treatment they receive on the street, and that a discussion about gender-based street harassment can be had.’ “
Fazlalizadeh is undeniably raising awareness about aggressive gestures toward women. Men and women alike have responded to the artist, both on the Internet and through handwritten notes on the posters.
Responses from viewers have varied from messages of affirmation and encouragement to defensive responses written on her art work, shown in photos of the posters on WSN. One comment read:
” ‘A guy telling you to smile says to show the beauty they see in you.’ “
Another man wrote:
” ‘Relax!!!!’ “
In an interview with Brian Lehrer, Fazlalizadeh responded to the men’s written comments, stating that these reactions confirm the reason she began this project. These responses were attempts to control women, as are the remarks of harassment on the streets: “I think that’s what the problem is – when someone comes in and tells you how to wear your face, or that they feel entitled to tell you how to wear your face.”
One particularly passionate reader, who went by the name “Realist,” claimed that Fazlalizadeh’s work suggests women should be suspicious of all men in a public setting.
He wrote in response to a post on Fast Company: “Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is teaching a whole new generation of young women to hate every man they ever come across because obviously they are all bad. Seems like the incongruous generalizations, stereotypes and sexism is the key to solving all problems. May no human being ever be friendly to another human being ever, unless they are of the same sex.”
Opposition doesn’t seem to affect Fazlalizadeh, though — she’s just glad that people are paying attention and thinking about her message. She wrote that she realizes the general public audience may not share her frustration or opinion about street harassment.
According to a post on her blog:
“A lot of people will not agree with this project. A lot of people, men AND women, will not understand it. And that’s okay. This project is not asking for there to be zero interaction between men and women in public spaces – it’s asking for the interaction to be respectful and safe.”
These reactions and discussions, whether they are positive or negative, may substantially change the nature of interactions on the streets. Men have become more aware of women’s thoughts and feelings, and Fazlalizadeh’s work has received attention from many blogs, talk shows and Internet forums.
One man, who called himself Marlon, left a comment on Fazlalizadeh’s blog and offered this encouragement:
” ‘Hi Tatyana, as a father, uncle [and] brother I respect your project keep up the great streetART work!’ “
One critique I would offer is that Fazlalizadeh’s non-verbal approach to advocate for change is a passive movement. If she truly wanted men to change their actions, wouldn’t she confront them in a more effective, demonstrative manner?
She seems to be aware of this flaw. She confessed that women typically don’t have the courage to speak out against their aggressors on the street, but the written messages on her posters represent oppressed female voices. She said the project conveys her thoughts and feelings of discomfort in an alternative form, speaking up for all women.
“So with this work, I wanted to say what I actually think when being hounded by men (though, they aren’t my exact thoughts because those usually include a lot of expletives),” she said in an interview with Stop Street Harassment.
Fazlalizadeh has opened her own online store featuring her sketches and caption on t-shirts. Her “Stop Telling Women to Smile” project will also be celebrated at a reception in Brooklyn on April 12.