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Why Telling A Woman To 'Smile' Makes Her Want To Scream

This graffiti in a neighborhood in Cairo is emblazoned with the words "no harassment" in Arabic.
Mural by Mira Shihadeh via AP
This graffiti in a neighborhood in Cairo is emblazoned with the words "no harassment" in Arabic.

If there's anything I've learned over the past few days, it's that street harassment takes many forms and happens everywhere. And it makes women feel super icky — not flattered.

After I shared my own experience being catcalled by men when I spent summers in Egypt as a teenager — and even being ambushed by a group of street boys just for wearing shorts — I wanted to know: How do men and boys treat women in public in other parts of the world?

Across NPR's social media platforms, women told us their stories. On Snapchat, a woman shared a photo of the face she makes when men tell her to "smile" — and she does not look happy. On Facebook, a woman told us how "creepy" it was that a man told her she looked "beautiful" in the middle of a parking lot at Target. And on Twitter, we got some helpful advice from NPR editor Hannah Bloch, who told us that while living in Pakistan, she was told by friends not to look around for faces if she were groped but to "follow the hand" to find the offender. (She also said she was advised to invoke catcallers' mothers and would sometimes yell back: "Does your mother know?" and watch the catcaller cringe.)

Here's a selection of responses from our social accounts, which have been edited for length and clarity. See more stories from more countries, including the Bahamas, Japan and Yemen, here.

Canada: "Get inside my car [expletive]"

The other day I was walking down a very busy street in Toronto in broad daylight. I came to the streetcar stop and a man in a car pulled up beside me and said "get inside my car [expletive]." I was scared and shaking and didn't know what to do. Luckily the streetcar came and I quickly ran inside, heart pounding. — Mary Rose Allan via Facebook

Haiti: "My mom took care of it"

I grew up in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. When I was about 14, one of our neighbors, a guy in his mid-20s, would follow me every morning as I walked to school, talking behind me as I ignored him.

I couldn't go anywhere in the neighborhood without that guy following me. It became so stressful, humiliating and embarrassing that I broke down crying one morning and told my mom what was going on. My mom took care of it that day. She walked up to the guy and pretty much told him not to ever look at me or talk to me again. From that point forward, I told her about other similar situations and she handled them. — Marie Maitre via Facebook

Italy: "Masturbating and staring directly at me"

During a trip to Sicily, I walked by a parking garage and looked over to see a man standing in a dark garage openly masturbating and staring directly at me. — Apryl Webb via Facebook

Romania: "I am already thinking about the special running clothes I need to buy"

I grew up in Romania and I visit Bucharest every other year. I plan to go for a month in May, and I am already thinking about the special [body-concealing] running clothes I need to buy so I won't get too many nasty comments from the men on the streets. Growing up, I hated being groped, having my breasts touched by male passers-by, being whistled at on the street, having boys in high school trying to push up my skirt or having professors in my first year of college proposing that I sleep on their couch in their office! — girasole2016 via NPR comments

Switzerland: "He pushed me up against a wall"

I was 14 in Endingen, Switzerland. I was walking to school when a man working on street construction grabbed me. His friends and colleagues immediately surrounded us, laughing. He pushed me up against a wall, felt me up and tried to pin me for a kiss. The men pressed closer. I got away. I told people. I told my parents. Nobody did anything. It was kind of funny, they said, and boys will be boys. — Stephanie Nakhleh via Facebook

United States: "If I refuse ... they call me a 'frigid [expletive]' "

In the U.S., if I refuse to acknowledge a catcall or ignore someone when they tell me to smile, [men] yell something threatening at me or call me a "frigid [expletive]" if I glare at them. — le lamanantin via NPR comments

Share your story. How do men and boys treat women in public in your country? Tell us in a comment below, or tweet it to the writer at @MalakaGharib.

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Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.