Tatyana Fazlalizadeh Is Widening Our Understanding of Street Harassment

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, the author of Stop Telling Women to Smile: Stories of Street Harassment and How We're Taking Back Our Power (Photo credit: Tatyana Fazlalizadeh)

In 2012, Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh launched Stop Telling Women to Smile, a project inspired by her experiences with street harassment. Fazlalizadeh, who’s originally from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, transformed the art project from a personal form of expression on a Brooklyn street to a worldwide movement that has resonated with thousands of people. For nearly a decade, she’s been interviewing people of different ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, and ages about their experiences with street harassment and turning their stories into art that pairs their faces with a compelling quote from their interviews. In 2014, Fazlalizadeh told Holly Kearl, the founder of Stop Street Harassment, that one of her goals was “put this work in the hands of women across the world.” Now, she’s making that happen with her recently released book Stop Telling Women to Smile: Stories of Street Harassment & How We’re Taking Back Our Power.

Stop Telling Women to Smile features a wide range of stories from women of different backgrounds and identities about their experiences with street harassment—cis women and trans women, Black women and Latina women, straight women and queer women, women from big cities and women from small towns. Fazlalizadeh pairs their stories with original artwork of their faces, which is designed to show how most women—no matter where they’re from or how they identify—are subjected to street harassment. Though street harassment is prevalent, there’s no single narrative about it; each person experiences street harassment differently.

“No one else has done anything like this,” Kearl told the New York Times about the original art project in 2014. “[Fazlalizadeh’s] images are very accessible.” Outside of this specific project, Fazlalizadeh has been a working artist: She’s currently the first artist-in-residence to work with New York City’s Commission on Human Rights, where she will work for 18 months to “unveil [a] series of citywide street art projects addressing anti-Black racism and gender-based harassment.” She’s also working with muralist Jessica Sabogal and filmmaker Melinda James on When Women Disrupt, a collaborative tour that has taken the three through multiple cities, including California, Arizona, and New Mexico, to “install small and large outdoor pieces that challenge racism, sexism, and xenophobia.” And, as of last month, we’ve gained new, in-depth access to Fazlalizadeh’s work and subjects through her first book.

Fazlalizadeh and I discussed how she chose interviewees for her book, the importance of widening our understanding of who experiences street harassment, and her relationship with the young feminists who grew up with her work.

Stop Telling Women to Smile has been in the world for nearly a decade now. In hindsight, how do you reflect on this work?

I never thought about it being nearly a decade [old]. I never intended for that to be the case, but it’s a project that’s been ongoing because it has resonated with so many people. Street harassment is such a huge issue, not just for me or my community or people in New York, but around the country and the world. It’s pretty awesome to think about having created something that has had a big impact on how people move through the street and throughout the world. But [I’m] also thinking: What’s the future of discourse? What’s the future of changing street harassment and changing how women are experiencing the public space? What does the future look like for our safety in the streets?

This book, in particular, is a very important part of not just this project but sexual harassment and street harassment at-large. I want people to understand [that this] book is different from the [larger] project; it really is this well-rounded, smart, and knowledgeable look at a complicated issue that digs deep into telling people’s stories. For those who have been following the work for a long time, understand that this book is different from the work you see in the street, but it’s just as important.

In the introduction, you write, “Nobody, not even my mom, talked to me about street harassment and sexual harassment at large; it was ever present, but invisible.” Has the discourse around street harassment changed since 2012?

When I launched the project in 2012, I wasn’t necessarily aware of any large national conversation happening around street harassment. That’s not to say it wasn’t happening; it was. Women have been talking about our experiences with every form of sexual violence since the dawn of time, but social media and technology coming more to the forefront over the past 10 years has had a huge effect on women’s stories actually being heard. When I started the project in 2012, it was (and still is) an outdoor, in real life, in-person project. I put up the work where it happens, which is in the street. But [Stop Telling Women to Smile] also has a life online: People take pictures of the work, which gets on the internet. That [combined with] all the other conversations that have begun happening online about our understanding of sexual harassment, our recognition of sexual harassment, and the narratives around sexual harassment, have just blown up. That’s the main difference.

When I was a teenager, harassment wasn’t really being talked about to me or with me. But if you’re a young person now, you have all of these stories. You have access to other people’s experiences [that reflect] the experiences you may also be going through too. And you have a community to talk about it with.

I grew up with your work. I specifically think about being a young feminist and seeing photos of your work on Tumblr. Now, it’s 2020, and your original audience and fans have grown up. There’s something interesting about the idea of feminists learning and growing together.

I hadn’t really thought about the relationship between the work and the audience and someone who has seen the work over time because I’ve just been so entrenched in my own practice. You don’t really look up that often to see how much time has passed or to see the effect it has had on individuals. It’s hard to see the impact sometimes. So, to hear you say, you’ve kind of grown up with the work is very interesting to me. That’s the first time I’ve heard that. One of the things I hope folks take away from [the project] is the ability to create their own work around an issue that’s important to them. Perhaps that’s street harassment or sexual harassment or something dealing with women’s issues, but [I’d like to show that it’s possible] to use your own talent and skill to make an impact on some type of movement or to create some type of movement.

Stop Telling Women to Smile: Stories of Street Harassment and How We’re Taking Back Our Power by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh (Photo credit: Seal Press)

Throughout the 2010s, Tumblr became a base for you to share your work and build an audience. How do you think social media has shifted conversations about street harassment and other issues that concern feminists?

I think about the real-life application of the work because I’m a visual artist who works in tangible art forms. I create paintings on canvas. I’m an oil painter. I draw on pencil and paper. And so, I’m thinking about the actual work [instead of] thinking about social media. I understand the importance of [social media], the effect that it has, and how it can be used. I understand how useful [social media] is because Stop Telling Women to Smile gets a second life on the internet because most of my street art is temporary. When I put up a piece, I know it may last for a few days a few years. But it’s not meant to last forever.

But, in a way, the work lives forever online. Social media can be useful in [helping] a piece from a corner in Brooklyn be seen across the world. [But] I’m creating work that’s meant to live in the world. [The ability] to find people to be a part of the work is [one] useful part of social media and online [spaces]. My work is still based on real-life stories and talking with people. Everyone that has been portrayed in any of my drawings is someone I’ve had a real-life conversation with.

You’ve essentially decentered yourself in your work. Though you’ve experienced street harassment, you’ve passed the mic to allow different types of people to share their stories. In the book, you write, “The experience of making art from talking to so many women over the years has been like weaving a tapestry of experiences and voices and insights…I want the voices presented in this book to provide you with that same tapestry, that same deep understanding, and that same sense of comfort.” How did you choose your subjects and how did you put them at ease when discussing such large topics?

The people who talk to me about their experiences with street harassment are eager to do so. They’re coming specifically to me to talk about how they move through the world and are experiencing oppression in the public space based on their identities. We’re so used to being treated a certain way and have this [deeper] understanding of why we’re being treated that way, so for the most part, people who come to me are easily able to articulate their experiences and why [they’re experiencing street harassment]. People have always been easily able to talk to me. I can be a very quiet person sometimes, so people are just able to speak around me. I allow a lot of space for another person to have the floor and to talk. People find comfort in that, especially when they’re talking about something they often don’t have the space to talk about.

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 The second chapter in the book shares the story of a queer androgynous Black woman (“This may come as a surprise, but men are particularly likely to harass masculine women,” you write of their story). That felt important and intentional because there’s still an idea that only certain types of women endure street harassment, which isn’t true.

Throughout the life of this project, it has been very important to me to center people whose stories aren’t usually centered, and to shift the narrative [about] how street harassment happens and who it happens to. In order to have a smart conversation about what’s happening in our world, we have to hear stories and experiences [from] a varying amount of people. That’s always been a part of the project, but for the book in particular, I wanted people to [read stories from] these very different folks who [have] different backgrounds and identities. Each of their stories is important.

Both Candace and Raqui are Black, but they have different experiences and backgrounds. [It was important to include] different people of the same race, sexuality, and so on, so readers could see just how wide ranging their stories are. It’s important to complicate the idea of sexual harassment, how it happens, when it happens, and the extremes to which it happens, so that we have a better understanding of it and can tackle it better. If we have that understanding, it will make us smarter people, [offer] clarity, and [help] us fight for another person’s freedom and safety with the understanding that we may have some privilege over them. Just because someone’s story differs from ours doesn’t make it any less real or important. There’s a lot to learn about how other people move through the world.

In a 2016 interview, you said, “I wanted to talk about street harassment, so it made the most sense for me to do the work in the street.” What does it mean for this work to be transformed and turned into a book?

The work in the street is still the priority, but when people see the work in the street, they think this poster they see on a sidewalk is the entirety of the work. But there’s a lot of work and process that goes into getting that poster on [that] wall: finding the person to interview, conducting the interview, [and] photographing that person. And there’s an entire transcript of an interview before we get to that one sentence you see on the poster. I wanted to take all that content [and] information and compile it in a space where people can understand [how much] work goes into this project.

What do you hope people will take from the book?

I hope it ends up being a resource for people. It’s a quick read [with] plain language—not a heavy academic book. I want the book to [inform] readers about transphobia, homophobia, fatphobia, racism, and how all of this stuff affects how a person moves [through the world]. We have a limited understanding [that] sexism is the cause of street harassment, but it’s not just that. I hope [readers] highlight sections of [the book and] really dig deeply into it, keep it as a resource if they want, and pass it along to other people. I know that women’s groups are reading the book together. I hope it’s used in schools. I hope it’s used in whatever way people find it to be most useful: Pass it along to the children [and] the men in [your] lives. Everyone can get something out of this [book].

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Greatist, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.