Emily May: Combating Harassment Through Technology

Like most good ideas, this started out simple. In the summer of 2005, Emily May and a group of friends discussed how common street harassment was in New York City. “Catcalls, jeers and unpleasant suggestions made us feel like the streets didn’t belong to us. We were feeling unsafe in our own cities,” says May. “We wanted to reach out to women, share stories and show that no one was alone in this. At that time, blogging wasn’t what it is today but it was a good way to reach out.”

The result was Hollaback, a Web site dedicated to ending street harassment. Women can write about their experiences on the online forum and upload photos.

“Street harassment is such an under addressed issue,” says May, one of the sites co-founders. “No matter where you are in the world this is one crime that is rarely taken seriously.”

Sharing stories
Within six months, publicised through other blogs and mostly through word of mouth, stories from outside New York and the United States poured in. “We understood that street harassment wasn’t just about us. It was an international epidemic,” says May.

No one expected Hollaback to draw in so many members in such a short while. But few had then thought that by 2010 this would become an iPhone and Droid application that would allow users to report harassment in seconds. The data sent through the application is automatically mapped and a follow-up e-mail from Hollaback asks for details about what happened.

May has no tech background. Money to fund the product development was scarce. “We thought foundations would donate,” she says, “but none did.” So May and her associates posted notices asking for donations on the Web site, Kickstarter, and 400 people donated the $12,500 they needed. “Basically 400 people helped develop it,” says May. They submitted it to Apple who then approved the application. More than 1,000 people have downloaded it already. “…It’s available only in the States at the moment,” says May. “We are testing what people think of it to make changes later.” Earlier versions allowed people to only pinpoint their locations, but now they can type in their stories simultaneously.

Funded by time
Hollaback was run for five years without money. From 2010, May, now executive director, and one part-timer earn salaries. A lot of funding comes from individuals and revenue is generated in terms of the time that volunteers donate to the site. So some people, foundations and private donors give money while others volunteer to monitor the blog, put up links and edit material. “It’s amazing that in spite of being volunteer driven we attract incredibly talented people and today have six different departments with team leaders,” says May. Of the original members, one is a board chair. Most of them have gone on to earn Ph.D. degrees.

“Some of the founders aren’t as involved as before but the decisions we made years ago still ring true and reflect in the decisions I make today. We have also grown with the project,” says May.

Hollaback in India
Hollaback works internationally and plans to open at least six sites every quarter. Its India site, based in Mumbai, was launched in January and is run by Aisha Zakira. “Street harassment is a serious problem in India and is commonly known as ‘eve teasing.’ That’s not cool—there is absolutely nothing a woman can do to ‘ask for it.’ The word ‘teasing’ trivializes an act that as women who have experienced it know, is isolating, painful and deeply frustrating. Not to mention frightening,” says Zakira.

While it is still in the process of being publicised through women’s organizations, publications, blogs and newspapers, heartbreaking stories of what harassment can do are already pouring in.

Sample this: “I purposely buy clothes that are too big for me. I purposely go out wearing baggy clothes because I feel that when I wear something that shows skin, men stare at me more. Actually, they stare no matter what I wear, but even more when I am wearing something revealing. It should not be about what I wear.”

Another site is in the offing in New Delhi.

Stories like this encourage May and Zakira to continue their work. May holds training sessions in schools and among the women who run the sites, talking and explaining how harassment works and what they do to deal with the situation better. “A 16-year-old once asked me if street harassment was normal. She thought it was happening…to her and that somehow she was responsible for it. We must understand that street harassment isn’t about beauty or you really. It’s simply about a wrong assertion of power,” explains May. So, the next time someone “Hey baby’s” you, you know what to do. Just Hollaback!


Paromita Pain is a journalist in Austin, Texas.