The Transnational Anti-Street Harassment Movement

Everyday insecurities and security practitioners from London to Cairo

Dr Elisa Wynne-Hughes
University of Cardiff
Professor Jutta Weldes
University of Bristol

The Research Idea

This project brings together academics and activists working on anti-street harassment projects – those designed to combat gender-based harassment in public spaces – in London and Cairo to initiate new research examining the nature and consequences of everyday transnational security practices.

This new project is based on and inspired by our previous research, which examined media representations, government security policies, and the production and practices of anti-street harassment networks. Elisa Wynne-Hughes (Cardiff University) has researched how the Egyptian and Western media represent street harassment in Cairo in ways that legitimise Egyptian security policies targeting poorer Muslim males as sexually threatening, despite the fact that the government has itself long used sexual violence as a political weapon to deter women from public protest. Jutta Weldes and Karen Desborough (University of Bristol) are working on ESRC-funded research examining how non-violent grassroots groups create and sustain networks to combat insecurity; the global anti-street harassment movement is one of their case studies.

The proposed project aims to examine how groups combatting street harassment function transnationally through everyday security practices, when the state either has failed to protect women or actively targets them. It responds in part to requests from anti-street harassment groups in Cairo and London who, in interviews with Wynne-Hughes (HarassMap; Basma/Imprint; Anti-Sexual Harassment) and Desborough (Hollaback! London) in 2013/14, expressed the need for research into the successes and limitations of their everyday security practices. With ISRF funds we would arrange initial meetings to develop this project with these anti-harassment groups.


Our project is situated in relation to and addresses limitations of both Security Studies (a sub-discipline of International Relations [IR]) and anti-street harassment literatures.

Contemporary Security Studies conceptualises in/security in one of two (crudely delineated) ways. ‘National security’ approaches understand insecurities to emanate from external threats in an anarchic international system and to threaten the state as the referent object of security, or what is to be secured (e.g., major international journals like ‘International Security’; ‘Security Studies’). The ‘domestic’ is considered pacified (by the state) and thus the arena of security. ‘Human security’ approaches treat the individual as the referent object of security, while generally conceptualising the state, and sometimes international organisations or NGOs, as sources of security and the locus of security practitioners (e.g., Newman 2010; Carpenter 2014). Neither approach recognises street harassment as an important insecurity nor treats activists combatting this insecurity as security practitioners.
The literature on street harassment, in contrast, recognises the negative consequences of street harassment for women, girls and LGBTQIA individuals, and often tries to combat it without recourse to the state (e.g., Kearl 2010), recognising the complicity of the state in sexual violence (Amar 2011). However, this literature is generally very empirical and does not theorise street harassment as an ‘insecurity’ and, correspondingly, does not conceptualise anti-street harassment activists, organisations, and networks as security practitioners. In our past and ongoing research (e.g., with Hollaback! and Stop Street Harassment, USA) some activists have expressed a keen interest in this reconceptualisation of their work.

The Focus

This project offers a fresh approach to the real-life problem of street sexual harassment, which is pervasive, relentless and global in scope. We reconceptualise street harassment as a fundamental ‘everyday insecurity’ (Rowley and Weldes 2012) that undermines the dignity, safety, and prosperity of its targets (UN Trust Fund on Human Security 2014; Desborough and Weldes 2014).

The project aims to examine comparatively the strategies developed by anti-street harassment activists, the ways in which those strategies produce diverse social identities through social and spatial inclusions and exclusions, and the practical effects of those identities on individual security. In Cairo, we will examine the post-2011 anti-harassment campaigns by HarassMap, Basma/Imprint and Anti-Sexual Harassment. Their strategies have sought to avoid state involvement, violence and the disciplining of women’s public respectability, focusing instead, for example, on challenging street harassment’s social acceptability and encouraging bystanders (doormen, shopkeepers) to intervene, creating ‘zero-tolerance zones’. In London we will examine Hollaback’s strategies, including bringing street harassment to public and state attention (e.g., as independent advisors on ‘Project Guardian’), creating safe, harassment-free spaces in music venues, bars, pubs and clubs (the ‘Safe Night Out’ campaign) and, challenging street harassment’s social acceptability.
We seek to examine comparatively the security strategies developed in two quite different social contexts, with particular attention to how these security strategies de- and re-construct diverse social identities (e.g., ‘respectable woman’; ‘slut’; ‘lad’; ‘innocent bystander’; ‘good Samaritan’) to enhance individual and community security. We will also work with local activists in assessing their strategies’ successes and limitations.

Theoretical Novelty

This project offers two main theoretical innovations:

Our primary theoretical innovation, to Security Studies as a discipline, is the application of the concepts ‘everyday insecurity’ and ‘everyday security practitioner’ (Rowley and Weldes 2012) to the study of street harassment. The former allows us to recognise street harassment as a legitimate and global form of insecurity that should be taken seriously in Security Studies. The latter allows us to recognise the work – both practical and theoretical – undertaken by anti-street harassment activists as itself an instantiation of the theorisation of in/security. This challenges the assumption underlying Security Studies that only state actors and academics can theorise in/securities and thus act to alleviate them. At the same time, deploying a conception of power as productive rather than solely repressive (e.g., Foucault 1972) allows us to examine whether and how the security strategies developed by these everyday security practitioners successfully (or not) resist state and/or patriarchal power and practices of exclusion or marginalisation.

Our second and related theoretical innovation is to co-produce knowledge about anti-street harassment strategies with everyday security practitioners in London and Cairo. Instead of treating these activists as merely the ‘objects’ of our research, we plan to work with them as co-investigators. Put differently, we seek to theorise the in/securities of women, girls and LGBTQIA individuals on the streets of Cairo and London in tandem with the theorisations made by everyday security practitioners themselves. Our project is thus not only interdisciplinary, but also explicitly crosses the academic/non-academic divide.


Although its immediate intellectual home is IR, this proposed project is manifestly trans-disciplinary. It draws on a range of disciplines and inter-disciplines for research inspiration, for theoretical and analytical concepts and for methodology.

We are inspired by Cynthia Enloe’s (1996) feminist IR insight that international politics is made possible by gendered (and productive) power relations at the micro level: for us, these micro-level power relations manifest themselves in both street harassment and the global movements and local strategies designed to eradicate it. Relatedly, we draw on contemporary cultural studies (Storey 2014) to help us theorise ‘the everyday’ – a concept central to this research but new to IR scholarship. To theorise different strategies of global and local activism, we draw on the literature on feminist activism (Eschle and Maiguashca 2010, 2013; Naples 2012) and the sociology of networks (Castells 2010, 2012), while our analysis of the construction of diverse social identities draws on both post-colonial and post-structural scholarship (Said 1978; Doty 1993; Chowdhry and Nair 2002).

Methodologically, we rely on qualitative methods. Our main analytical tools will be formal and informal interviews (Fontana and Frey 2000; Mason 2002). Our activist co-investigators will have already been deploying the ethnographic research methods, including participant observation, characteristic of anthropology and some feminist studies (Tedlock 2000; Delamont 2004; Crang and Cook 2009). (Ethnography is an emerging but still unusual methodological approach in IR [Vrasti 2008].) As noted above, we also draw on the (still limited) research on and practices of knowledge co-production (Nagar 2013).

Work Plan

This ISRF funding would allow us 1) to conduct qualitative fieldwork in Cairo/London, 2) to bring together academics and non-academics engaged in anti-street harassment activism in workshops in London/Cairo, and 3) to co-produce comparative research on these anti-street harassment movements.


Cairo (March/April 2015): interviews, set up by coordinators (Noora Flinkman [HarassMap], Nihal Saad Zaghloul [Basma/Imprint] and Ayman Nagy [Anti-Sexual Harassment]), with activists involved in creating zero-tolerance zones in different parts of Cairo.

London (June 2015): interviews with Bryony Beynon and Julia Gray at Hollaback! London as well as with other activists involved in a global conference on anti-street harassment activism.


Cairo: workshop with those coordinating everyday security activities (Flinkman, Zaghloul, Nagy) and with academics such as Helen Rizzo (Sociology, American University in Cairo [AUC]) and Angie Abdelmonem (PhD Candidate in Anthropology, Arizona State University, Researcher at the AUC) who study and consult on street harassment in Cairo.

London: workshop with activists and academics attending the global conference on anti-street harassment activism.

Intended outputs (end of 2015):

A co-written academic article to be submitted to ‘Security Dialogue’ on street harassment as an everyday insecurity and the practices of the global anti-street harassment network as everyday security practitioners.

A co-written policy report for the groups we worked with on the successes/limitations of various anti-street harassment strategies.

Strengthened connections between us and these anti-street harassment activists, and within the anti-street harassment network itself, that will lay the groundwork for a larger project (see below), and a stronger anti-street harassment movement.


This funding would allow us to lay the groundwork to develop a larger joint project examining everyday security strategies to tackle street harassment transnationally. We intend to a bid for an ESRC or Leverhulme Research Project Grant to fund a project that would expand the analysis to investigate both the understanding of everyday insecurities and the security strategies and practices of anti-harassment groups working in India and the USA. This project would allow us expand our preliminary comparative analysis between Cairo and London to additional major cities in the US – the home of the anti-street harassment movement – and in India – of particular importance due both to the prevalence and violence of street harassment and to the vigor of its anti-street harassment organisations. These comparisons would allow us to examine in more depth the similarities and differences in these in/security practices across diverse social, cultural and economic conditions in both developed and developing countries. We envision this larger project leading to a published book informing academics and practitioners on the transnational strategies and effects of everyday security practices.

We are particularly interested in expanding our analyses to the following groups and organisations:

In the USA – the base for several major anti-street harassment movements and practitioners:

Stop Street Harassment (Washington DC)
Hollaback! (New York City)
Collective Action for Safe Spaces (Washington DC)
Feminist Public Works (Philadelphia)
Stop Telling Women to Smile (New York City).

In India:

Blank Noise Project (Bangalore)
Safe Delhi Campaign (Delhi)
Hollaback! (Mumbai)

Anti-Street Harassment Workshop: Reflecting Diversity in Tactics

Anti-Street Harassment Workshop: Reflecting Diversity in TacticsOn 31 March 2016, a participatory research workshop ‘Anti-Street Harassment Workshop: Reflecting Diversity in Tactics’ was held in Cairo. This workshop was sponsored by the Independent Social Research Foundation and organized by Elisa Wynne-Hughes (Cardiff University), Jutta Weldes and Karen Desborough (University of Bristol). The workshop brought together members of anti-street harassment groups Hollaback! London and HarassMap (Cairo) to compare the strategies they use to address and combat street harassment in different contexts. The main focus of this workshop was on who is potentially included and excluded through their various tactics. How do they target and reach a diverse audience of harassers, bystanders and victims/survivors of harassment? Based on the needs previously identified by these groups, we aimed to collectively develop ideas for future strategies that are as inclusive as possible, taking into account diversity along the lines of gender, race, class sexuality and age. We engaged in lively discussions ranging from the similarities and differences in the challenges they face in countering myths around street harassment, to the role of social media in attracting selective audiences, and the barriers to participation for more marginalised communities. Based on this research and follow-up interviews, Elisa, Jutta and Karen will be writing up a report for the groups and a journal article to be presented at the Pan-European Conference of the European International Studies Association in September 2016.