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Catcalling in the streets of Athens

Article

Initiate a discussion on catcalling. Create a safe space for victims to address and share incidents.

Humanity has made great strides in the 21st Century in many social issues, including gender equality. Along these lines, Konstantinos Koukos was inspired by online movements in New York and London against catcalling on city streets. He found that societal awareness around the issue was largely non-existent in his native Athens, which he considered deeply problematic. Catcalling is defined as behavior in which people (mostly women) receive unwanted whistles or comments of a sexual nature and serve to objectify the body. Konstantinos believes that there are worse forms of street harassment which can escalate from catcalling; such as women being followed home. And yet, catcalling itself is so rampant, that he regards it as an issue that needs to be addressed much more.

After becoming a Fellow in the 2017 Humanity in Action John Lewis Fellowship in Atlanta, he, along with his co-fellow Mairy Markaki, had a game plan to address this issue back in Athens. So upon their return, they turned this endeavor into their Action Project. Konstantinos’ and Mairy’s objective was simple. Fundamentally, they wanted to understand this phenomenon in relation to Athenian culture in which, according to Konstantinos, ‘macho behaviors’ such as catcalling are almost expected of men in order to prove their masculinity. Additionally, they wanted to put themselves in the shoes of catcalling victims and offer them a safe space where they could address questions and discuss ways of coping.

“I feel I am treated like a piece of meat when I get catcalled” (Catcalling Victim)

The most substantial yet surprising obstacle in communicating with victims was a linguistic one. The Greek language apparently lacks a term synonymous to catcalling and its socially negative connotations. So when speaking with victims, Mairy and Konstantinos had to either use the English word or simply clarify the meaning. This is believed to be the case because catcalling has traditionally been so deeply rooted in the Greek society as a way of flirting, that a lot of men seem oblivious about this behavior being unwanted from the women on the receiving end. Once the linguistic barrier was overcome, they found that the women quickly opened up. Due to the social stigma around catcalling, these women long repressed their opinions and negative emotions associated with it, which in some cases caused them (psychological) trauma. Another issue these women faced, is that they had no one to talk to about their catcalling incidents, and because of societal pressure were often led to believe that it was their own fault for calling too much attention to themselves by ‘dressing or acting too provocatively.’

Overall, Mairy and Konstantinos believe their project to be just the beginning: simply raising awareness in Athens about this pervasive social issue. However, they also realized that introducing a space where the victims could speak freely about their experiences and unload the emotional burden that comes with them, was extremely beneficial to the women. Many Humanity in Action Senior Fellows in Athens found out about the project and actively supported it, which helped to facilitate the process. Still, Mairy and Konstantinos believe there is much room for improvement. They applaud cities like Paris, for making catcalling a punishable offense with a fine of up to 300 EUR. They believe this is something Athens could learn from in the future. 

At last, before such legal reforms on catcalling can be introduced, there is much work to be done in Athens to further raise awareness on the issue. First of all, women need to understand that they are the victims, and that being subject to this behavior is not somehow their fault. They should be made feel more comfortable in openly talking to loved ones and professionals about catcalling incidents. Once this is achieved, this should help raise awareness in society and stop perpetrators from having such behaviors.

Mairi and Konstantinos were interviewed by Popaganda, an online multimedia magazine focused on Athens. In the article (in Greek only), they discuss the outcomes of their Action Project.