Local filmmaker Sharif Ali is hoping to kickstart a public discussion on the longstanding problem of street harassment in the Maldives with a short documentary featuring young women speaking out and sharing their experiences.
‘Street Harassment: The Daily Menace’ by Hulhevi Media – uploaded to YouTube on Friday – shows women telling stories of facing harassment on a daily basis, including lewd remarks, exhibitionism, stalking, and groping.
Speaking to The Maldives Independent, Sharif said he was inspired after reading a Facebook post last year from a girl who gave a detailed account of being harassed by a group of men.
“I thought that this is a conversation that needs to be started. This is often a very taboo subject. Street harassment is not often talked about but it happens every day to so many people,” he said.
Sharif said his biggest challenge was finding subjects willing to talk on camera.
“A lot more people want to share their stories now. But many of the people I talked to were reluctant to share their stories, they were afraid of being targeted again. It was important that their faces appear, because the objective is to overcome this fear. But the fear to talk about this reinforces how deep-rooted this issue really is,” he said.
Almost all of the women interviewed for the documentary said they face harassment every day.
“I was 11. He came fast towards me. Mom was walking a little ahead. He bumped me and grabbed my front. I was in deep shock. It still freezes me much when I get harassed,” recalled one young woman.
Sharif also interviewed a young man who admits to harassing girls.
“I was 12 when I began hanging out with the guys around the corner. I watched how they behaved and started harassing people,” said the anonymous harasser.
“I read out my number at them, tell them they are pretty, and follow them to their homes. I yell at them more if they are wearing tight clothes.”
He also confessed to taunting “men who walk effeminately” and migrant workers.
“I am not proud of it. But I harass people because it is fun. I keep quiet when a relative passes by and tell friends not to harass them.”
His advice to harassers: “Do it verbally but do not touch them. That is not how men are supposed to behave.”
One young women said she went to the police station to report harassment, but found police officers to be uninterested and unhelpful.
“They did not even note down the registration number of the motorbike and asked if I wanted assistance in going home. I needed the issue to be investigated, not a ride home,” she said.
But Sub-Inspector Mohamed Sobah said identifying the perpetrator is a challenge in investigating cases of street harassment.
If victims promptly report incidents and provide statements, Sobah said it would be “easier to address the issue.”
Under the section on disorderly conduct in the new penal code, using abusive or obscene language, making an obscene gesture, stalking, soliciting sexual contact is a grade three misdemeanour. The offence carries a jail term of up to three months.
Sharif’s documentary was also inspired by a Facebook page called “Nufoshey” (Stop harassing)..
Appearing in the documentary, one of the founders of the page, Ithu Zareer, said about 30 percent of boys also face harassment at some point in their lives.
She also said that police officers were often involved in street harassment.
“Policemen themselves make remarks at us from inside their jeeps. My friends and colleagues face similar experiences, too,” she said.
But Sobah said such incidents are investigated by the police professional standards command or the watchdog National Integrity Commission. Disciplinary action have been taken against several policemen this year, he said.
The Nufoshey Facebook Page shares accounts of street harassment submitted by the public. Posts also show the time and location of the incident.
One post said: “It was the first day of school and I was just 14. I held hands with my sister on the way while passing by a group of men. ‘Hey Lesbians’ One of them called out and the others followed with a sneer. This continued for 3 years. I tried to avoid the street, but decided to take the same route every day. Every time they harassed me, my determination grew even stronger. I’m 19 now, but the humiliation and pain still linger on. Near Redwave Chandhanee Magu.”
Sharif meanwhile stressed that street harassment should not be dismissed as trivial or a “social norm.”
He noted that blaming the victim is commonplace and part of the norm, which is often “an excuse to justify their actions when it cannot be justified.”
“Nobody should have to face this in public spaces in their own home country, but it happens so often. People should be able to use these spaces without the fear of being abused or assaulted. When I talked to these victims I could see how painful it is for them,” he said.