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Understanding the Power of Shame

In Delhi last week with the Amplify team, I unexpectedly got a first-hand lesson in what public sexual harassment feels like, and came away wondering how to use public shaming to control behavior.

Photo of Marika Shioiri-Clark
11 14

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Our team has been in Delhi and Kathmandu for the last two weeks meeting with many women and girls about their experiences with urban safety. Many of these women and girls discussed public transportation as an important site of female vulnerability, so it has been on my mind as we make our way around the two cities. Still, I didn't know how to react when I found myself in an urban safety situation of my own.
A few days ago after eating dinner out, our team got in a rickshaw to be taken back to our hotel. Because there was so little room in the rickshaw and there were four of us, I got into the front seat, taking my place on the tiny bench next to the driver. As we began driving, I noticed his arm lightly resting against my chest, but chalked this up to a lack of room in the front seat—his arm needed to push out at that angle in order to steer, and I remember feeling badly for being in the way, worrying that I was hindering his movement.

As the little rickshaw shot down the highway at breakneck speed I could feel his arm pressing more and more tightly into my chest, but still I rationalized this as a simple lack of space issue, not wanting to make a scene by pushing his arm away while his safety was in our hands. I pointed out his arm to my colleagues in the back seat with a laugh, envisioning him as simply a distracted rickshaw driver annoyed about carrying a group of Americans, but without any specified intent. Gradually, though, I began to feel his arm moving up and down on my chest in a motion that was clearly not associated with steering and powering the rickshaw. And then I felt it: his hand was now on my thigh, rubbing up and down. I panicked. I whipped around in my seat and started repeating to my workmates in the back seat, under my breath since I was still embarrassed to be making a scene: “This is not OK. This is not OK.” My colleague saw what was happening and slapped his hand away, but the driver seemed unconcerned and found his way immediately back to my thigh. Finally we yelled at him to pull over the rickshaw, and I jumped out and switched places with a man in our group, taking his place in the back seat. Of course, as my colleague reported, once there was a man in the front seat, the driver’s body parts were comfortably far from touching him.

I remember sitting in the back feeling like a fool. Had I unknowingly implied to him that this was acceptable behavior by not speaking up sooner? Although I knew it shouldn't be the case, his actions did feel now like a progression of movements, testing the waters of what I as a woman and a foreigner would allow. And how could it be possible that he seemed so unfazed by the initial slap at his hand? When we arrived at our hotel, our driver still felt brazen enough to argue about payment, and I was again surprised by his lack of shame.

This seems to me to be a major difference between Delhi and cities in the United States, where I live: I have a hard time imagining a similar situation in the US where the driver wouldn’t afterward exhibit some outward signs of embarrassment. Although we know that sexual harassment still occurs in the United States in public places, there does seem to be more secrecy surrounding its enactment. A man in the United States would most likely be embarrassed to be “caught” touching a woman’s leg. In Delhi, at least for this driver, touching my leg and rubbing his body against mine seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary, and nothing to hide. And if public shame is such a potent deterrent, how might we leverage its power toward solutions in womens’ safety?


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Photo of Alejandro Moreno

Reading this I got one thing clear. Victims should get rid of shame. They should be deeply conscious and convinced that being the object of any kind of harassment makes you the victim of it never the culprit. It doesn't matter if you expose yourself unwillingly to it, because you ignore the local manners, or if you don't react forcefully to it , because you feel weak. You are always a victim, never the culprit. From this deep insight I think the force could rise in the victims to point with their finger the only culprit in harassment: the harasser.

Photo of Luisa Fernanda

It's exciting to see that you research post has sparked an idea. Check it out
I am sure Cansu would love to hear input

Photo of Brad Filice

What a jerk! I'm sorry this happened to you. And it's great that your using it to take action.

The mayor of Bogota did two things you might be interested in. First, he sent out 350,000 "thumbs up" and "down" signs for people to hold up in the street when they saw good or bad behavior. Second, he asked people to call the city when they had a good cab driver and used the list of names to create "Knights of the Zebra" a group designed to make the streets safer. I've also seen some interesting things about women drivers in this challenge.

Be safe out there!

Photo of Marika Shioiri-Clark

Hi Brad, thanks for sharing! I love these ideas from Bogota - I'm super curious to know how much the "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" signs were used in everyday life. And the idea of calling the city to report good drivers is simple and powerful. How might we create a rating system for taxi and rickshaw drivers in places like Delhi as a way to collectively select for better behavior?

Photo of DeletedUser


hmm. I get a lot of thoughts from Brad Filices referring to handing out thumbs up and thumbs down in the streets of Bogota. While i have been somewhat annoyed by how leightweight it is to "like" something on facebook etc, I think maybe maybe using the same system in "meatspace" could be really interesting. I have been into similar situations as Marika and how great wouldn´t it be to be able to easily stick a big thumbs down sticker to the back of a guy trying to rub his leg against yours sitting next to each others in the cinema feks. It is so extremely difficult to accually stand up and yell at these "on the border" harassments. The harassments that are acted out intentionally on the border-so that the "victim" shouldn´t really be sure wheter it is an act of harassment or not. You don´t want to yell at someone who 1. you are not sure he is doing something to harass you. 2 You are not ready to deal with the consequences of making a scene. Leaving a thumbs down sticker at somebody or something could be a way of 1. letting this someone/something know you are not ok with it. 2 letting people in the surrounding know someone was not ok with this person/this thing.
Yes -god question-how can we rate our surroundings (people and things) and make this rating completely visible in the streets?
how to make these ratings elegant and not offensive?
How will this system be abused?
Is it not better to speak out to the face of someone who does something wrong?

opens for a lot of questins...

I am also wondering if there are other things we could try to transfer from social media to meatspace? there are so many tools in social media to talk to strangers, rate things, connect things etc. But in meatspace -where most things are happening , where we live our lives(debatable..) the tools are not so many. Or?

Photo of DeletedUser

heres a link to the documentary about the mayor in Bogota. At 14.50 they talk about the thumbs up/down idea

Photo of Brad Filice

I made a little post about the Mayor of Bogota too:

Photo of Meena Kadri

Marika – loving your notion of a rating system for drivers (which has come up in other conversations on this challenge too – inspired by Uber) Will be interesting to think how this might work in a more analogue context. Bring on the Ideas phase!

Photo of DeletedUser


This was not an uncommon experience for female expats and nationals alike in the South Asian culture I lived in. What women in that culture often did to invoke shame was to say, "Don't you have sisters or a mother?" This would often stop the behavior in the moment. This response requires very basic language skills employing three simple one syllable words. As part of an orientation I would teach this phrase to expat women on the short-term teams I would facilitate. If it still got out of hand we recommended appealing to an older man in the vicinity. Sometimes the problem then becomes that the older man feels the younger man has brought shame on his country and he will "let him have it" verbally and sometimes even physically. I received these bits of advice from expat women who have spent decades in the culture as well as national women for whom it is an everyday reality. I am so sorry you had to experience this and I hope that you had many other experiences in which you were shown respect.

Photo of James McBennett

Maybe the driver felt no shame because he was surrounded by foreigners who were temporily in his country, thereby thinking he would never be caught .

I wonder if you had of grabbed a photo and had the opportunity to be able to send the story to his male friends, would they have cheered or been appauled. Sending to his female friends, how would they have reacted and possibly sending the story to his wife/mother/sisters and even kids if over 18 and how they would have reacted?

I wonder if an app 'let them know' existed where you or even your friends grapped a photo of the driver and a team were somehow able to hunt down the connections to show this story to them.

On a postive side, glad you had your friends with you and not been alone with this driver.

Hailo and various taxi platforms are doing an excellent job at reporting on both bad taxi driver behavior and bad passenger behavior improving the system for all. Wonder if that system could exist in low-income communities which would at least solve the taxi driver market.

Photo of Jamie Beck Alexander

Hi Marika, I'm also so sorry that this happened! But it certainly sounds like it provided you with some deep insights. What strikes me the most is that this harassment happened with several other people around -- and not just around, but in the same rickshaw (and that at least one of them was a man)! Although I still believe in general that there is safety in numbers, your experience proves that the issue is much more complex than that. One thing I wondered was whether the driver would have dared to disrespect an Indian woman traveling with her husband in the same way. Do you think that safety issues are different for local Indian women in Delhi than they were for you?

Manjul's interviews with three men who are admitted street harassers: indicate that one motivation for committing street harassment may be to gain acceptance in a peer group or move up in a hierarchy. All three men interviewed also said that the only thing that would prevent them from committing an act of harassment would be 1) cops or 2) other men around. So why was your experience different - why did the presence of a man in your rickshaw not prevent him from committing the act? Is it that men have a certain respect for other men of their community and would be ashamed to commit an act of street harassment in front of them (unless they're part of his hierarchy), and that the presence of a foreigner didn't hold as much weight to them? Would a 'thumbs down' from a local man be more shameful to the offender than a thumbs down from a foreigner?

It made me think about the different kinds of threats and solutions to safety that women of different demographics face - but how one common thread might be the fabric of the community and how people in the community hold one another accountable.