PITTSFIELD, Mass. — April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and local advocates are addressing a form of violence that most women have faced: street harassment.
The Berkshire Domestic and Sexual Violence Task Force's annual "One Book, One Community" event will include public art exhibitions from activist-artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh to accompany countywide group readings of her book "Stop Telling Women to Smile: Stories of Street Harassment and How We're Taking Back Our Power."
The displays will be installed in Park Square and in front of North Adams City Hall beginning this week and at Castronova Park and Town Hall in Great Barrington from April 11-24.
"A lot of people dismiss street harassment as if it wasn't a serious form of violence against women, but it really is," planning committee co-chair Susan Birns said.
"And it is because it has an implicit threat of violence all of the time, even when an actual incident isn't violent, you don't ever know when it's going to escalate. And it's psychological violence and it's menacing, and that's why people do it and it's almost universal, between 80 and 90-plus percent of women globally, have had the experience."
About two dozen groups around Berkshire County will be reading and discussing Fazlalizadeh's book that tackles the issue of street harassment with an emphasis on, but not exclusive to, women from marginalized groups. This year's event has three parts to it: a book read, an art exhibit, and a webinar with Fazlalizadeh on April 29 that is free and open to the public.
Fazlalizadeh is a visual artist who attended art school in Philadelphia, which is where she became aware of the strong presence of street harassment in women's lives. Upon moving to New York City, she became tired of the harassers and wrote the "Stop Telling Women To Smile" book that includes 40 portraits of women affected by this kind of harassment.
To create the pieces, Fazlalizadeh interviews women and asks "what would you like to say to your harasser?" She then uses the women's responses as a caption under pencil sketches that she draws of interviewees. These images can be easily shared and blown up. They have been featured on building facades and in public spaces all over the country and internationally.
Some of the women's responses include:
"Let women walk in peace."
"Not an exotic fantasy."
"You want to sexualize me while I just want to live my life."
"You are not entitled to my space."
"I am not here for you."
There will be 10 portraits from the project displayed throughout the Berkshires on lawn posts that are similar to political signs. Park Square will display 30 of Fazlalizadeh's works and will be the largest display.
The Beacon Cinema will also showcase posters of her artwork in its windows.
"One of the things that's interesting is women are so often — when it comes to sexual assaults of all types — are blamed for it. A lot of the reasons women don't prosecute rapists is because when they go into court, they're often blamed for how they were dressed, why were they walking alone in a known bad part of town. Why were they out late at night by themselves," Birns said.
"But to show that it really isn't a function of how we dress, women in burkas who are covered in cloth from the top of their head to their ankles with only their eyes exposed still get harassed on the street, so it's not about what we do, it's about power and control and humiliation and it's not a compliment."
North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard is an active member of the Berkshire County Domestic and Sexual Violence Task Force. He will be involved in a reading group taking place in North Adams and will be assisting with the installation of Fazlalizadeh artwork in front of the Town Hall.
The organization's 2020 "No Visible Bruises" event in conjunction with the Berkshire District Attorney's office brought nearly 500 people to the Colonial Theatre to hear author Rachel Louise Snyder speak on the subject.
Of course, COVID-19 guidelines restrict a 2021 event of this sort, but Birns hopes that the collective reading, learning, and discussion of shared experiences related to street harassment will unite people in a similar way.
The webinar at which Fazlalizadeh discusses her book and artwork will be on Thursday, April, 29, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. It will be signed for hearing-impaired and will be simultaneously interpreted for Spanish speakers. To register for the event, visit here: https://bit.ly/2QUqN54
. The webinar event is also listed on Eventbrite.com as "Stop Telling Women to Smile." Also, be sure to follow the Berkshire Domestic and Sexual Violence Task Force on Facebook and Instagram.