Welcome to part two of my interview with Laila Slassi, a Moroccan lawyer and activist who co-founded the Masaktach collective against sexual violence. We just spoke about the birth and early victories of the initiative. Now, Laila tells me about the campaign that propelled Masaktach on the national and global maps: whistles against street harassment!
Just a couple of months after you created Masaktach, you ran a hugely successful campaign. Can you tell me about that?
We wanted to tackle street harassment and get people to understand that violence sometime starts with an insistent look on the street. We wanted people to understand the difference between hitting on a woman and harassing her.
The Moroccan Parliament had recently adopted a new law on violence against women, which banned street harassment and harassment in the workplace. However, nothing was being done to let women know that the law was out there. So we thought about it, and the idea of using whistles came up.
It’s such a brilliant idea. I love it!
We can’t take credit for the idea – we didn’t come up with it. We’re always inspired by what our sisters do all around the world. In this case, we were inspired by the mayor of Mexico City who handed out whistles to women so they could protect themselves.
We couldn’t just wait for the Moroccan government to do something, we decided take things in our own hands. Our plan was to hand out the whistles together with a leaflet that explained the provisions of the new law. We wanted women to know that the law was now on their side. So we made an announcement.
“We couldn’t just wait for the Moroccan government to do something, we decided take things in our own hands.”
People and the media reacted so enthusiastically that we had to adjust our plans quite a bit. We increased our order from a total of 500 whistles to 10,000 just for Casablanca. We printed more leaflets and we called our friends as reinforcements. My office’s meeting room became our HQ and all of us girls gathered there, filling bags with whistles and dancing to Beyoncé. We started opening up about things we usually don’t talk to each other about. It was great, we could feel the sisterhood around here!
When the day came, we broke into small groups of just four or five people. The law will only allow large groups to march on the street if they have asked for a special authorization – which we obviously hadn’t done. We went out there and had a great time.
On the day, we broke into small groups of just four or five people. The law will only allow large groups to march on the street if they have asked for authorization – which we obviously hadn’t done. We went out there and we had the best time.
How did people react to you speaking about this on the street? And did you get any reaction from the government?
The government didn’t react at all. Radio silence. But then, we started the campaign because we didn’t expect anything from them, so no surprises there.
On the other hand, we had amazing conversations with people on the street. The girls would come back from their rounds of handing out whistles with stars in their eyes, and tell us about the wonderful encounters they’d had with women out there. Some people were a bit skeptical at first, but after a brief chat they realized that, indeed, it’s not normal to get harassed all day in the street! Overall, the people we met in person were largely supportive. Social media was another story altogether! (She laughs)
“Some people were a bit skeptical at first, but after a brief chat they realized that, indeed, it’s not normal to get harassed all day in the street!”
Oh dear. I don’t know if I want to hear it…
Most of the feedback we got on social media was encouraging, but we were also flooded with insults, particularly on Facebook. The scale of the abuse took us by surprise. We’ve had to delete those comments and block the trolls, but it does tell us something.
It was useful in a way because it helped some of those people – mostly men – who had been struggling to grasp the magnitude of the situation and who were unclear about what harassment is. Through the online abuse we got, these men got a glimpse of the violence women experience every day – and that’s just what we experience online.
Out there on the street, guys take advantage of the dominant status that they enjoy just for being born male, and they sneak on you, whispering nasty words in your ear or just staring at you as if you were a piece of meat.
Tell me about it. Since moving to Casablanca I’ve only worn a skirt once, and I’m not about to do that again.
Here you go. It’s terrible, you feel targeted whenever you enter the public space. We’ve ended up normalizing violence and finding ways to cope with it. Every morning, when we dress, we don’t leave anything to chance: what we wear, how high our heels are, how much makeup we put on. We make sure we won’t stand out in the street. And once we’re out there, we keep a low profile.
“Every morning, when we dress, we don’t leave anything to chance: what we wear, how high our heels are, how much makeup we put on. We make sure we won’t stand out in the street.”
I only live ten minutes from the office, but I drive instead of walking because I don’t want to deal with all the creepy stares. I did hang a whistle to my car’s front mirror though!
Let’s talk about the whistles for a minute. At first it seems like such a trivial object, but it seems that it’s become a symbol many people have rallied around. What do you make of that?
People often ask us what good a whistle can do. Well it can do a lot! First of all, a woman who has been harassed can use her whistle to let her frustration out, instead of keeping it all bottled in. The whistle also brings protection: we’ve heard from women who’ve used their whistles – or threatened to use them– to expose a stalker. Obviously, a whistle won’t turn a bad guy into an ally, but it’s time for shame to switch sides, and the whistle helps with that.