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The Power of a Three-Worded Question: ‘You Ok Sis?’

Precious Ajunwa
June 02, 2023

**Content warning: sexual harassment

It was a typical summer evening in the bustling city of Paris when I decided to walk back to my hotel after exploring the capital. As a Black tourist, I cherished my solo trips as a time of reflection, but that was about to change. While crossing the street, I noticed two young men walking toward me. At first, I thought nothing of it, but as they got closer, I could see smirks on their faces. They said something in French to me. I did not understand what they said but, as a solo tourist in an unfamiliar environment, their gaze was unsettling and made me feel unsafe and vulnerable to potential danger. I tried my best to avoid eye contact and continue walking. Soon, one of them grabbed my arm and tried to pull me toward them. I felt helpless and scared, wondering what would happen next. Suddenly, another male voice from behind me interrupted the tense moment by asking, "Why are you pulling her to you? Is this how you harass ladies?" He then stepped between me and the two men, and gently inquired, "You ok sis?” The two assailants quickly backed away and the stranger walked me to the other side of the street. This intervention was an act of kindness that made a big difference not just in that moment but in my life.

According to a 2021 IPSOS study, 84% of women have encountered sexual harassment in public settings, and 76% have witnessed sexual harassment in public spaces.

The experience of street harassment breeds a haunting sense of vulnerability for women, girls and gender diverse individuals, compelling us to tread with heightened alertness in public spaces. While women's encounters with street harassment can vary depending on their age, social class, sexual orientation, and race, the most distressing aspect of public harassment for me is that bystanders rarely act to intervene.

My experience in France highlights the power of a simple question: "You Ok Sis?" — That question, from a bystander, reassured me and made me feel seen and supported during a vulnerable moment. In that instant, someone was looking out for my safety and wellbeing and it reminded me of the power and importance of speaking up when witnessing similar situations in the future.

The power of a simple question like "You Ok Sis?" lies in its ability to show empathy, compassion, and solidarity, and to create a sense of community and safety. Although that question may sound simple, it has taken on a new meaning in the era of “hashtag activism”. Hashtag activism refers to using hashtags on social media to engage in conversation that “advance counter-narratives, preempt political spin, and build diverse networks of dissent.” This allows individuals to communicate, mobilize and advocate for issues that are important to them with others. 

"#YouOkSis," became a trending hashtag campaign that prompted a robust discussion among Black women about their experiences of street harassment and the need for bystander intervention. The hashtag campaign draws particular attention to how street harassment impacts Black women and how their voices are often missing from mainstream media on gender-related issues.  

I wholeheartedly concur with Feminista Jones, the brainchild of the #YouOkSis campaign, who shared in an interview that by passively observing harassment, we increase the misery for the survivor and send a message to the harasser that their behaviour is acceptable.

From my experience, I understand that bystander intervention is not just a responsibility, but an opportunity to create safer, public spaces for everyone. By being active bystanders, we can challenge harmful behaviours and attitudes, provide support to those who are experiencing harassment, and ultimately, make a positive difference. For me, creating safer communities starts with recognizing the signs of street harassment and violence, and intervening in a way that is safe, respectful, and effective.

Fostering a culture of respect is crucial for disrupting street harassment, especially for Black, Indigenous and racialized women who are most impacted by street violence and harassment. First, we must demonstrate that we see, hear, and support survivors of street harassment.

A free, 24-hour, 7-day-a-week, toll free telephone and teletypewriter (TTY) crisis line with services available in up to 200 languages featuring crisis counselling, emotional support, information and referrals is available at 1-866-863-0511 or more information can be found here.


About Precious Ajunwa (she/her)

Precious is a Sustainability Project Manager, Researcher, and a Gender Feminist & Women Studies graduate student at York University. With a career spanning over nine years, she has honed her skills in designing and managing projects in the nonprofit, real estate, and technology sectors, making her a highly sought-after professional in her industry.