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Tired of being harassed on the CTA, women fight back
ROGERS PARK | Activists who battled street abuse now focus on catcalls, other improper behavior on buses, trains

Monday, June 15, 2009
Chicago Sun-Times
by Mary Wisniewski

When Lillian Matanmi and her friends get on the L, they often hear catcalls and other unwelcome remarks from male passengers.

Like: "Don't you look sexy today." And: "I like how that little skirt fits on you."

One time, a man reached over and, uninvited, started massaging Matanmi's shoulders.

"I just got up and sat down somewhere else," said Matanmi, 19, who's a student at Malcolm X College. "I felt really uncomfortable and unsafe. I was scared that if I said the wrong thing, I'd be hurt."

Matanmi is a member of the Rogers Park Young Women's Action Team, a group of teen and college-age women who have fought street harassment in their neighborhood, distributing thousands of posters to businesses and homes to encourage people to shoo away congregating men so girls and women can walk in peace. They successfully pushed for better street lighting in the Far North Side neighborhood.

Now, the group has turned its attention to the "hey-babying" and other lewd language they hear on the CTA.

They surveyed 639 CTA riders, mostly young women, and found that harassment on CTA buses and trains is pretty common.

Next month, the group hopes to meet with the CTA's board to talk about ways to improve safety -- and help women deal with unwanted attention.

"A lot of people don't realize that when they're getting catcalled or someone touches them in the wrong way, that's harassment," Matanmi said. "They think that's just part of their day."

Just over half of those surveyed said they'd been sexually harassed on the CTA. Thirteen percent said they'd been sexually assaulted.

Of those who had been harassed or assaulted, 91 percent said they didn't file a complaint with the police or the CTA. The transit agency had two recorded incidents of criminal sexual assault systemwide for all of last year.

Forty-four percent of those surveyed said they'd witnessed harassment or assault on the CTA, but only 22 percent said they intervened.

Daphnee Rene, 21, a DePaul University student who's a member of the Rogers Park group, said women sometimes don't report being harassed because they figure that, by the time they get to a CTA worker, the harasser is gone.

Ronnett Lockett, 20, a Northern Illinois University student and another member of the group, said one problem is that women might be frightened and not know how to respond. Ads on trains would help people know what to do, Lockett said.

The group also wants CTA employees and police to be trained in how to deal with harassment.

"Sometimes, the bus driver sees it and won't say anything," Lockett said. "They probably don't know what to do."

What if a guy just thinks he's being friendly? For Lockett, harassment depends on what's said, and how it's said.

"If you come up to me and say, 'Hey, little mama, let me get your number,' you're harassing me," she said. "If you say, 'Hey, excuse me, how are you today?' I don't feel like you're harassing me."

But if someone says something nice, then keeps saying it after a woman says she isn't interested, that's harassment, too, said Matanmi.

CTA spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney said the agency takes these things "very seriously." But riders who feel threatened have to speak up, she said.

"Should a customer feel threatened at any time as the result of another individual's behavior, they should notify the rail operator immediately via the use of the emergency call button," Gaffney said.

At L stations, customer assistants or security guards are on duty during service hours, Gaffney said.

And CTA buses and many L stops are equipped with security cameras networked to the CTA's control center, Gaffney said. Some stations have already been renovated to include brighter lighting, and the agency is in the process of installing more security cameras.

To reach more people and push for improvements, the women's group is planning a poetry slam on sexual harassment on the CTA, to be held from 2 to 4 p.m. June 27 at Berger Park, 6206 N. Sheridan.

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