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Greene: Harassment

I felt sorry for the Muslim women ordered by French police to remove their outlawed “burkinis” or leave the seaside in Nice. Those women just wanted to enjoy the beach.

Officials banning the garments called them “uniforms of Islamist extremists”, but they’re hardly threatening looking. Designed by Australian Aheda Zanetti, they resemble wetsuits and cover the body except for feet, hands and face, affording their wearers both freedom and modesty.

But many French feel that newcomers should dress according to local French customs, revealing the real issue of cultural assimilation.

When a young woman I know told me about being bothered on the street in Brattleboro, I realized it’s actually not so very different here – where the issue is about women in public who are more scantily clad.

Young women especially experience comments, catcalls, harassment, stalking, even assault. This isn’t flirting, which is mutually enjoyed. This is unwanted attention, containing an edge of threat.

In fact, a new Facebook page on street harassment draws a growing number of women fed up with being hassled on the street.

Captain Mark Carignan of the Brattleboro Police Department says most incidents don’t get reported to the police, so it’s difficult to know if harassment is on the rise. Women are often confused about what constitutes a crime, so they hesitate to report incidents they may find quite threatening.

Also, there’s a fine line between harassment and free speech, however obnoxious the latter is. But if an unwelcome comment is repeated, or the perpetrator follows or blocks the woman, that’s harassment, or possibly disorderly conduct.

And judges draw a line between speech and conduct.

To fit the definition of stalking, there have to be at least two instances of being followed.

As to what women should do to lessen the chances of being harassed, Captain Carignan thinks the burden shouldn’t be on the woman being hassled – men should be educated about appropriate public behavior.

But he warns it’s a bad idea to challenge a perpetrator, since engagement can escalate the encounter - potentially making it both dangerous and harder to prosecute.

From headscarves and short skirts to burkinis and spaghetti straps, women’s dress seems to be a kind of cultural red flag signaling social change - with something to upset everyone.

But we can’t stop change by targeting clothing we dislike. What if somebody found down vests and clogs objectionable?

Then where would we be?

Stephanie Greene is a free-lance writer now living with her husband and sons on the family farm in Windham County.
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