In honor of Sexual Violence Awareness Month, we want to spotlight activists who are working to end gender based public sexual harassment. Every Friday in April, we will introduce you to their work, their motivation for bringing attention to this form of sexual harassment, and what we should do if we are victims of or bystanders to street harassment.
This week we spotlight two amazing women working to showcase street harassment on the big screen. We are delighted to have showcased part of Nijla and Monique’s documentary, BACK UP! Concrete Diaries, a few weeks ago. We find both of these women amazingly talented, passionate, and ready to start a revolution on behalf of women and men who want to stand up for their rights in public.
Twitter style, give CASS readers a snippet of each of your bio’s in 140 words or less.
NIJLA: Writer, photographer, filmmaker from the San Francisco Bay Area. Closet singer and active dancer. My interests range from baking apple pies, to collaging, to Palestinian film and culture/s. I’m a graduate of the UC Berkeley where I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications. I created Sweet Potato Pie Productions in 2006, a production company specializing in the creation of narrative films, documentaries, and photography that examines the most intimate details of the human condition. I am currently working on a manuscript of poetry and short stories for publication in the near future.
MONIQUE: I’m from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi and have traveled and lived throughout the U.S. I received her B.S. in Social Work with a minor in Anthropology from NYU. Fate led me to Sony BMG, where I was encouraged to pursue my own creative vision. Now, I write scripts and make movies. I’m a foodie and a singer at heart. I consider my films visual love songs. I’m currently working on BACK UP! concrete diaries, a documentary about street harassment of women that was inspired by my personal experiences while living in NYC.
What motivated you both to develop a documentary on street harassment?
N: It’s interesting- I was once telling Monique that when I was in high school and up until my early years in college, “street harassment” as it is known and referred to here was not even given a name. It was just something that happened, and I remember feeling so frustrated and so full of rage because it was such a persistent problem for me, but when I’d bring it up to some people, they’d seem to turn it around to it being my “problem,” as if my very existence caused it. I came to this documentary because I want to end the rhetoric of street harassment, and violations of women’s bodies, as merely a “woman’s” problem. Opening an honest dialogue between all people is the only way to fully address it in its entirety. We are resisting the notion that this is just some issue without a name; something that women should be silent about. That’s what we are doing with this documentary.
M: For me, it was about the daily harassment I experienced in New York. I walked everywhere, so I was a walking target, or that’s how it felt. My girlfriends and I would share our war stories, some crazy, some funny, some traumatic. I never really became used to it, though I lived in various parts of New York for a decade. I always had to prepare to go outside. You know, get my game face on. I was inspired to look into the phenomenon of street harassment during my junior year of college when I spent a semester at UC Berkeley and began some grassroots research on women’s experiences on the street and their perspectives on street harassment.
Tied along with that, who are your inspirations? What people get your blood flowing?
M: Good question! Lauren Taylor of Defend Yourself is an amazing inspiration with the work she is doing to help girls and women have the skills (verbal, emotional, mental, and physical) to protect themselves and to feel safe both in their own bodies and in public space. Definitely, my close friends and family. They are warriors. Women and men I pass everyday on the street. They are strangers, but when they/we stand up against street harassment in various ways, we are less strangers, and more connected. That inspires me.
N: June Jordan, Mahmoud Darwish, Frida Kahlo, Roy DeCarava…these tireless artists who weren’t afraid to bear their soul in their art. This is also my aim in every piece of art that I create. My mother and father have also inspired me tremendously in their will and pursuit to live and resist.
It sounds like you two have been harassed in public.
N: Yes, I have. My experiences with street harassment range from walking down the street in Berkeley and being called a “Little Red Riding Hood Bitch” because I didn’t reciprocate a man’s come-on, to being dragged down concrete in the broad daylight by a young man.
M: Yes! Not so much in D.C. because I drive most places here. My experiences here in D.C. and Texas, which is where my family is, are so drastically different from my experiences in New York. I often felt on guard when I was walking around and didn’t feel fully in control. I felt very reactionary and would do things like have earphones in my ear, even though I didn’t have any music playing because I wanted to be aware of my surroundings. I would also put sunglasses on so I could “see no evil, hear no evil”. I tried to create a little bubble for myself, like if I don’t look at them, they can’t see me.
How did that feel?
M: Not good. It started to become an outer body experience for me, and not in an enlightening way. I guess it was enlightening in the sense that it taught me that I disengaged during these types of conflict, but I didn’t come out of these experiences feeling better about myself, not usually at least.
N: Each experience is different. Each experience tugs at a part of my existence and my will to remain secure and unfettered while walking in public spaces. It feels suffocating and sometimes toxic when a man stares at me for 20 minutes on the train, as if he is undressing me. As a result, I am always on the move when walking in public spaces. I walk really fast and rarely stop.
In BACK UP! Concrete Diaries, you profile several women. How did you reach out to those women and make them comfortable enough to share their stories on camera?
N: We knew several of the women personally. I was a Student Teacher Poet in June Jordan’s Poetry for the People Program at UC Berkeley and two of the women featured where in that program with me. Monique and I were careful to think of the valuable insight that certain folks could add to the project, so many of the women featured have grassroots experience working and studying issues related to women, feminism, sociology, and politics. We also posted calls for interviewees on different websites and also sent mass emails.
M: We also have men coming to us with their perspectives, which is also interesting. As far as reaching out to the women interviewed, many of them are friends or colleagues. In the street scenes, we just approached random people for their opinions.
What type of reception have the documentary received?
N: We’ve received a massive response from people. Many women haven’t seen this topic tackled in film prior to this documentary, so they are very excited. We’ve also gotten praise and honest critique from men and women, which we are currently incorporating into the project. Overall, the response has been inspiring and reminds us why this documentary is needed and why we do the work that we do.
What do you plan on doing with the documentary?
N: Once we’ve completed the final cut, we plan to enter it into numerous film festivals to build support and exposure. We also want to spark community dialogues in schools and community centers across the country, so we will be arranging screenings in those venues as well. It is particularly important to get the youth’s reaction and experiences related to this issue because they are a prime focus of the documentary in terms of their viewing it, and taking part in it.
M: Part of what we are doing with the documentary is getting people talking about street harassment more because it is a topic worthy of discussion. It should be on everyone’s lips. From there, we can create grassroots action which could entail many things, but what I would love to see is more people speaking up when a girl or woman is harassed, so it’s not just her and the harasser. The paradigm shifts when the community is now involved.
N: And eventually, we hope to have the documentary broadcast in a public access television capacity, and available for widespread distribution.
What tips do you have for someone who is being street harassed in DC?
N: Hmm, this is an interesting question. I actually don’t have any tips because I am constantly trying to answer that question for myself. Sometimes it seems that that tactics that I thought were effective, even fail me. This documentary has been a part of my resistance and dealing with street harassment. As we develop it, I learn more and more about my right and will to resist, as well as the consequences and implications that befall that right.
M: I would first say that you are not alone and it’s not your fault. Street harassment can be very isolating, but there is power in numbers. The classes that Defend Yourself offers are a great resource. I plan on taking one soon, since the skills you learn crossover into so many areas of your life.
What are other art projects do you have in the works that you want to share with CASS readers?
M: We are still working on BACK UP! It is a work in progress. If anyone is interested in participating in any way, they can feel free to contact me or Nijla. I am also working on a few shorts scripts and a feature script at the moment. I am also excited to be directing my first short film, entitled FREAK. FREAK is the coming of age story of an obese, punk-music loving, daydreaming, graphic novel obsessed, black girl named Rosemond. We are starting production in mid-April and will be finished around early May.
N: I am currently working on the conception of a coming-of-age feature length script that revolves around Islamic and African American identity, repression, and trauma. I’m also working on a manuscript of poetry, short stories, and narrative that I will soon develop into a chap book, and eventually into a published text. Also, I’m working on two other documentaries, one entitled Without Judgment, about the complexities of Muslim women’s lives, and Fillmo’, which is about the gentrification of an area in San Francisco once known as the Harlem of the West Coast. Stay tuned!
We will! Can’t wait to see all the books and films. So, where do you see yourself in five years?
N: Creating. Singing. Dancing. Sitting in the back row of a movie theater at E Street Cinemas in DC, listening to, and observing people’s responses to my feature film that’s playing in front of them.
M: Writing movies, making movies and documentaries, traveling around the world with my family.
Nice. So, any words of advice for those who are in the arts, or want to be, and melding that with social justice issues?
N: Tell your story. Whatever that may be, tell it. Historically and contemporarily, there have been hegemonic forces in place to deny some people’s right to own and claim their voices and existences. We resist this by recognizing the inherent value in our experiences. It was only in the details and richness of our stories, that Monique and I were able to develop this documentary. We had stories about street harassment and we knew that other women and people did as well. The stories become universal and are indelibly political because we dared to tell them.
M: Do it! It is so important that more people marry social justice issues to their art in a real and personal way and bring their specific perspective to that issue. Social justice and art are not mutually exclusive. If anything, they compliment each other. Art, as with life, is what you make of it. Just do it! There is nothing new under the sun, just variations of the same themes. I say that to say, read and learn as much as you can, but also get out there and just do it. There’s nothing like learning from your mistakes or other people’s mistakes.
N: All art begins with the telling of a story.
To be profiled in the documentary or to learn more about Monique and Nijla‘s projects, please contact them at, Monique.firstname.lastname@example.org and Nijla1@gmail.com