21st Century Street Harassment: Sneaky Snapshots on Public Transportation

A Buenos Aires bus, colloquially known as a “bondi” Photo Credit-Benjamin Dumas

Editor’s note: See June 2, 2012 update at the bottom of the post.

By Sharon Haywood, Co-Editor

Imagine getting on a local bus or subway car knowing the possibility exists that someone will take your picture and upload it online for viewers to comment on your appearance—all without your permission. Creepy, huh? It’s the new reality for women in Buenos Aires.

Last Thursday, May 24th after boarding bus 39 during rush-hour traffic in the Argentine capital, I pushed to the back of the crowded bus where I gratefully claimed a small bubble of personal space all to myself. With one hand on my purse and the other clutching a pole, I scanned the faces of my fellow passengers and stiffened, remembering what my friends at Hollaback! Buenos Aires alerted me to earlier that day: A Facebook page, called Chicas Bondi, roughly translated to “Bus Girls,” pleases its 8000+ fans and counting by posting photos of young Argentine women that are taken surreptitiously on specific bus lines. Bus 39 was one of them. Even though I didn’t fit all the characteristics of a chica bondi (I’m white, but not young and skinny), I still felt uncomfortable; I couldn’t be 100% sure a voyeur wasn’t sneaking a shot of me with his cell phone.

The page owners, who conveniently choose to remain anonymous, defend their actions under the guise of being “art” (giving me serious flashbacks to our Monster campaign, in which violent sexual images of women in a Kanye West video were also justified in the name of “art”). They claim to offer an alternative face of beauty, in contrast to the T&A that is typically shown on some Argentine mainstream television shows. It’s a bit of stretch to believe their argument considering the women who unknowingly become their models all share the same skin color, body type, and age group.

Their tagline, “sin pose y sin permiso/without posing and without permission”, based on fans’ comments, seems to be the biggest pull to the page. The page owners generously stated that if a woman wanted her picture removed, they would graciously do so. What seemed to escape them is that by putting women in the public gaze as objects to be consumed without their knowledge could put some women in danger: when a picture is posted, the bus route is also included, potentially making them targets of harassment. Apart from such risks, this practice is a violation of privacy, plain and simple.

Fortunately, while I was shuddering at the thought of being secretively caught on film, Hollaback! Buenos Aires was knee-deep in a public dialogue on Facebook with Chicas Bondi that shone a light on these issues. I was impressed with both Hollaback, in its readiness to educate, and with Chicas Bondi, who recognized value in its arguments. They reached an agreement in which Chicas Bondi agreed to no longer publish any photos of women without their explicit consent; they have since updated the page to reflect this commitment. Although I’m not doing cartwheels about the existence of the page, I had appreciated the open-mindedness on the part of Chicas Bondi—until I was blocked.

For obvious reasons, I hadn’t ‘liked’ the page but I still had the option of liking and commenting on posts. After connecting and conversing extensively with the folks at Hollaback! Buenos Aires, (as well as with my colleagues at Adios Barbie and AnyBody Argentina), I publicly thanked Chicas Bondi for their change in policy on behalf of both organizations. The response was disheartening: “I’m not doing you a favor, I’m doing it for myself.” (I later discovered that Chicas Bondi had been recently approached to turn the project into a film but the filmmakers said permission from the women was necessary.) Shortly thereafter, my comment was erased and I was banned. Having no recourse on Facebook, I moved over to Twitter where I discovered they had tweeted that they erased “inappropriate” comments and banned such users. When I expressed my confusion, Chicas Bondi stated that my expression of gratitude was viewed as spam, and went on to say that being in dialogue with three feminists was more than enough. My gratitude quickly dissipated.

After many long deep breaths, venting to my colleagues, and a grounding conversation with the founder of Hollaback! Buenos Aires, Inti Maria Tidball-Binz, I can still appreciate that, despite the page owners’ motivations, we have taken a positive step forward. Unsuspecting Argentine women who now find themselves digitally captured will be afforded the basic right of being able to provide consent. Rest assured that we will be monitoring the page and doing our best, without further compromising the privacy of the women, to ensure that permission has been obtained. By no means do we endorse the page and still view it as what it is—a vehicle to objectify women—but at the very least, these women now have a voice.

* * *

Hollaback! Buenos Aires and Adios Barbie is proud to release the following joint statement:

Hollaback! Buenos Aires & Adios Barbie Stand Unified in Rejecting the New Practice of Digital Harassment

By Inti Maria Tidball-Binz & Ju Santarosa (Hollaback! Buenos Aires) & Sharon Haywood (Adios Barbie)

Every day, as women, we walk the streets, travel to work, visit our families, go out with friends, do our shopping, always knowing there is a possibility that they’ll catcall us, lean up against us/cop a feel in the subway, or follow us. Furthermore, knowing the reality of human trafficking, many of us live with the fear of being abducted off the street. If we have children, we project these fears to our daughters, who are exposed to the same reality.

Today the possibility exists that a stranger can anonymously take a picture of us and then upload it on the Internet for anyone to measure our physical attractiveness. Chicas Bondi, an Argentine Facebook page with the motto, “without posing and without permission,” exploits images of anonymous women for self-promotion. Taken secretly on local transportation, the images of these women, who could be identified by their dress and route of travel (which is also published), are subject to the gaze of thousands. In the context of a lascivious gaze, these women are exposed to a greater risk of harassment and stalking, which can be especially problematic for women who are suffering in or trying to escape violent relationships.

Chicas Bondi promotes this practice among its fans, encouraging them to upload their own photos, creating a culture of digital harassment. The feeling of being photographed in secret, or to discover your own image on Facebook can be extremely unpleasant, as one “chica bondi” described on Facebook:

“Well, when I saw that I was in a posted photo, it scared me… and then afterwards, blah! But maybe there isn’t the need to post these photos online… I feel like I’m in a catalog for rapists or other sick people. It was quite shocking…”

As so often happens, the social pressure to accept what has occurred is stronger than the sense of shock and fear these women may experience.

On Thursday, May 24 Hollaback! Buenos Aires along with several other feminists engaged in a long conversation with the creators of Chicas Bondi (who wish to remain anonymous) in order to discuss how their project was impacting women and society. We described the reality of how women are objectified every day in the streets, in addition to the social pressures to conform to one stereotype of beauty (young, white, thin, wealthy). We reported the page to Facebook, and encouraged our followers to do the same, in addition to having them voice their concerns directly to Chicas Bondi.

Part of the conversation between Hollaback! Buenos Aires & Chicas Bondi

We ended up extending the following proposal: if the photographer asked women to offer up publication rights to Chicas Bondi before publication, women would then have the right to decide what is done with their own image, thus giving them autonomy over their own body. After a lengthy and indepth conversation with the owners of Chicas Bondi, they committed to asking women permission before publishing their photos, and in return, we agreed to withdraw our unified campaign against the page. We hope that they fulfill their promise and also apply the same measures in any other similar situations.

We have reached an agreement

Informing followers of Hollaback! Buenos Aires that reporting and criticizing the page was no longer necessary

Prior to our negotiations, the page published a notice stating that if a woman requested her photo to be removed, Chicas Bondi would do so without issue. It’s important to highlight the difference between this measure and the act of asking permission before posting. Once a photo is in the public domain on the Net, it cannot be deleted; the moment a photo is published online, it can be easily copied and stored by anyone who wishes to save it. It is impossible to know who has a copy or where. Worth noting is that if the photos are posted on Facebook, the location and time of the photo are saved: “When you post things like photos or videos on Facebook, we may receive additional related data (or metadata), such as the time, date, and place you took the photo or video,” even though such data is not made public.

We want to stress the importance of this new measure, even though Chicas Bondi has made it clear that they did not make this choice for us (“us” being Hollaback and all women), but that they have chosen to do so for themselves. Filmmakers have approached Chicas Bondi with a proposal that would require consent of the women featured in the project. Beyond their personal motivations, we do see this as a step forward. Through a joint dialogue and an exchange of ideas and perspectives we were able to achieve greater awareness of gender equality issues.

For the record, Hollaback! Buenos Aires and Adios Barbie reject the idea behind the project: it is an expression of sexism which, under the excuse of being artistic, presents women as “decorative bodies” in the public eye, acting as a “things” to be commented on and judged. This is the same concept behind the problem of street harassment. We reject the commodification of the female body as an object existing for the enjoyment of others, to be enjoyed without the essential element of consent. This form of sexism presents women as objects destined to satisfy men, removing autonomy over their own person and body. Why does the photographer feel he has the right to take pictures of women he does not know and share them on the Internet without their consent? What entitles him to do so?

To justify the existence of Chicas Bondi, the owners originally cited the [Argentine] law 11.723, art. 31 which says: “Portraits are free to be published as they relate to scientific, educational and overall cultural ends, or if they relate to facts or events in the public interest or have occurred in public.” Hollaback! Buenos Aires contends that a woman cannot be treated as a “thing” in the public interest. A woman is not liable to be “owned.” We need to stop endorsing the macho concept that, in public life, a woman is public property, and therefore “arguable” at the whim of an observer. Women’s image in society will not change if we ourselves don’t actively take charge of our own integrity.

In our favor, Article 1071 bis of the [Argentine] Civil Code, in seeking the protection of the right to privacy, states:

“Whoever arbitrarily interferes in the lives of others by posting pictures, humiliating others by broadcasting correspondence that reveals personal habits or feelings, or in any way disturbing their privacy, and if a criminal offense has not been committed, the offending party must cease such activities, and pay fair compensation to be fixed by the judge according to circumstances; also the aggrieved may order the publication of the judgment in a journal or newspaper.”

We believe that anonymously taking pictures of women and uploading them to the Internet is a violation of one’s right to privacy, and threatens the personal integrity of the photographed women. In addition, this kind of behavior reinforces a sexist and backward-thinking society in which the image isn’t just defined by its appearance, it is also defined by the connotations behind the image. The message being sent is that the woman is an object, defined by her passive role, thus leaving her to be exploited or suffer a loss of autonomy.

While the underlying issues remain–the objectification of women, the underlying sexism in this practice, and the way we normalize the violation of women’s rights–at least now, those digitally-captured Argentine women have the right to basic consent. For our part, we will make every effort to monitor the page to ensure that no further breach to the privacy of women occurs.

You can find the original Spanish version at Hollaback! Buenos Aires.

* * *

June 2, 2012 update: Adios Barbie confirmed today with Hollaback! Buenos Aires that the owner(s) of Chicas Bondi have reneged their commitment to ask women for permission before uploading their photos. Regrettably, they have shut down any and all dialogue with Hollaback! and any other feminist who does not support their invasive practice by erasing comments and blocking users. So as not to attract further publicity to the page, we support Hollaback! Buenos Aires in reporting Chicas Bondi to Facebook as violating its community standards.

Related Content on Adios Barbie:

A Monster Success!

“Hey Shorty!”: A Tall Lesson on Sexual Harassment 

International Women’s Day in Buenos Aires