When ‘Hello’ becomes an Assault

by Olurotimi Osha

Women still have reason to be terrified in the streets…

Living in America, away from my sisters and my mother, often motivates me to reflect on the special status of women in our lives. Because I took a class on women’s rights as part of a program I attended at Oxford University, I learned to be sensitive to adducing women’s rights derivatively from their relationship to men. We deliberated on the question: are women treated as human beings? Or does their being elide with the fulfillment of men’s presumed rights? Women’s rights are human rights. Even among many well-meaning folks, how women are treated is often contemplated in terms of how men would want women in their lives treated. A vicarious golden rule is applied: and at best a decent man in an arm’s length transaction, would treat women how he would want his sister, daughter or mother to be treated.

However, this proposition still devalues the autonomy and inherent dignity of women. From studying some of the works, of the famed feminist scholar, Judith Butler, I learned the import of the now hackneyed phrase, “gender is a social construct” and how its constraints have burdened women with myriad misconceptions and stereotypes. As science debunks many traditional notions about women, and modern societies witness a universal efflorescence of women’s accomplishments, while historic and arbitrary limitations are peeled away, in limited respects, I remain traditional in extending a recognition of an elevated dignity of being to women in society. It is wonderful to treat a woman, like a lady.

My thoughts in this regard have been shaped in part by women, from whom I often learn by listening to them or through observation of women that I interact with. I share a commonplace example of a learning interaction with women.

So, I experienced two separate and interesting, but similar events last week. Before telling, I should mention that I finally got a young American sister as a friend…not my girlfriend and not angling to make her one. Although I have a “sister” (Black woman) as a close friend, whom I have had a platonic learning relationship with for about 15 years, she is older than me, and does not quite see life from the “millennial” perspective.

Since my teenage years, I enjoyed having women (I guess girls when I was a teenager) as close friends because of my love of learning. Of course, my ex liked calling me a “guy’s guy” meaning I hang out with the guys and I am respected by them. But when guys hang out, you don’t learn anything from them (all this stereotypical bashing of men going on these days).

The idea of men just chilling is to not do any thinking or serious stuff whatsoever. Which is not always that thrilling for me. But not so with women. Women are always teaching you something, when you are their friend. Especially, how to treat women. And check this: they teach you how to catch women without spending money – just for cheap men who care to know.

Now to the interesting events. So, I saw my new sister friend walking all dressed up on the street around the university campus, on a sunny afternoon in Chocolate City, for the first time. Because I had only seen her in sweaters and jeans, I almost didn’t recognize her, as we were walking past each other at the intersection. She indeed, had a makeover. Then when I realized it was her, I tried getting her attention, by calling out, “Heeeey, hhaaiii!”

For some reason, I do not like to call people’s names out in the street, I guess because I do not want to make their names a public announcement?

But my new friend widens her eyes, and suddenly quickens her pace looking straight ahead, as she darts for the other side of the street. However, I insist and call out again, “haaii,” and she, for some reason after she passed me, looked back. But instead of throwing me the brilliantly gorgeous smile, I have seen several times, she looks almost coldly into my eyes and goes, “hi,” and scurries along.

It made me wonder about our budding friendship…

Then later that night, as I was returning from grocery shopping, I saw a friend that I had hung out with and who had started teaching me Chinese again, and about Chinese politics. I hadn’t seen her since the summer, and she also looked different (I learned she had lost weight). As we walked up to each other, becoming parallel, I go, “Hey, hi”

Again, I do not call out her name; so, she freezes, grabs her phone, looks straight ahead, and walks faster. But I call out again, groceries in each hand:


And my Chinese friend literally starts running. Then I remember my name, and try:

“It’s me, Olu!”

Then she stops as suddenly as she had taken off, and spins around. And then she burst out laughing, as she walks back toward me. But she made it up by giving me a big hug, after which we chatted away.

Now back to my sister friend who’d made me wonder with her perfunctory “hi.” She is all smiles when next I see her (we are neighbors). Then she explains what happened, starting with: she gave me the perfunctory quick hi, and still scurried along, because she was rushing off to a meeting. She thought about it on the way, that I may have mistaken her rather aloof just “hi,” without the smile as being a snub or being rude.

And of course, she made it up with the bright smile I was accustomed to. And then came the big one and the reason women are literally petrified by “hellos” in the streets. She told me she has been catcalled since she was 12 years old!!! (I have never catcalled). She said a sick stranger had masturbated in front of her friend on a bus in Los Angeles – right there in public! She told me of so many other terrible things that women experience, and why they are often on alert in the streets, because they never know when an admiring, but fleeting glance (which she said would typically be welcome), or a “hi” will be escalated to an abusive behavior or outright criminal violation in the streets.

The rule for women as they walk alone on the street, whether in broad day light or at night, is therefore not to make eye contact, I was told. My new friend informed me that looking into the eyes of strangers in the street, is invariably misinterpreted as a signal to seduction.

I was so stunned by the revelation. Completely shocked. The other day on the street, when she was all dressed up, just after she turned around…she had looked into my eyes.


Photo by Bryan Minear on Unsplash

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