HALIFAX—A Halifax taxi driver who is being praised online for kicking a catcaller out of his cab said he took a stand because “I can’t let people do such things.”
Kourosh Hemmat, a Casino Taxi driver, said he asked a man who was verbally harassing a woman on the street to get out of his cab this past weekend in the city’s south end.
Shortly afterwards, he picked up Toronto photographer Alyson Hardwick and mentioned the story to her. She then tweeted about it, calling Hemmat “a true ally.”
On Monday, Hemmat said he had no idea she had shared the story online.
When asked how he felt about Hardwick’s appreciation, Hemmat said, “I’m OK as long as we can fix this problem.”
Hemmat said he picked up four men just before midnight on Saturday. Three sat in the back and one in the passenger seat.
Right away, Hemmat said the man sitting directly behind him leaned out of the car window when he saw a woman on the other side of the street and began to harass her to get in the cab with them.
Hemmat is originally from Iran and has a background in mechanical engineering. He has been living in Halifax for seven years and driving a taxi for six. He said he just learned the term “catcalling” from Hardwick.
When the woman heard the yells, Hemmat said he saw her frown and turn away from the cab.
“I said, ‘You are not supposed to talk like that in my car, in a taxi … sorry, I’m not giving you any service. Just leave the car,’ ” Hemmat recalled telling the passenger.
The man got out of the car, slamming the door behind him, while two others left in silence, Hemmat said. But he said the man in the front seat “felt bad” and apologized for his friend’s behaviour.
Hemmat said he was happy at least one member of the group apologized, and hopes he will talk with the catcaller about why such street harassment is unacceptable.
“It’s my personality — I can’t let people do such things. I can’t not do anything … I’m hoping they’ll learn from their mistake,” Hemmat said.
Women who are harassed “cannot feel safe, and safety for everyone is first,” he added.
This was not the first time Hemmat said he has dealt with catcallers in his taxi, though he said it doesn’t happen often.
A few months ago, Hemmat said he picked up a group of men in front of a Halifax bar and one of them started verbally harassing a woman in line. Hemmat said a man who was with the woman then came over to the cab, “very aggressive and mad,” and told him to let the catcaller out.
When Hemmat said no, assuming he would be placing the passenger in danger, the man kicked a “massive dent” into the driver’s-side door. Hemmat had the door repaired, but a slight mark is still visible.
Hemmat said he quickly drove away to escape the situation, but after a block or so he asked the group to get out of the car.
“First, (passengers harassing) people is not in my interest; second, they put myself and my car in danger,” he said.
Hemmat’s comments come amid a spike in recent high-profile cases where Halifax taxi drivers have been charged with sexually assaulting female passengers.
In July 2016, Halifax Regional Police said there had been 12 reported sexual assaults involving cab drivers since 2012. Five occurred in 2016, three in 2015, one each in 2014 and 2013, and two in 2012, police said.
In a case that gained national attention, former Halifax taxi driver Bassam Al-Rawi was acquitted of sexual assault last year in a controversial decision in which provincial court Judge Gregory Lenehan said, “Clearly a drunk can consent.” That acquittal has since been overturned on appeal, and a new trial ordered.
Hardwick said those recent headlines were on her mind when she tweeted about Hemmat’s story.
“I think it’s important for people to know that there are people … using their privilege to stand up to harassment,” she said in an interview.
It was “really, really nice to hear” someone using their position of power for good, Hardwick said, agreeing with Hemmat’s comment that harassers “don’t deserve a ride.”
Casino Taxi owner Angie Herman said Hemmat’s move is what she’s come to expect from a “respectful guy” who takes his job seriously and, like many of the company’s drivers, steps into situations to help others.
“We had great drivers doing that anyway, but I think that this woman actually thought to come forward and share her story because of the social conversation that’s happening … I’m just really proud of people who would stand up and are brave,” Herman said. “Not everybody gets involved.”
“Our drivers … are real people and I think they’re fed up as well, and they’re not appreciative of a (passenger who) would do something inappropriate.”
Herman said Casino backs any driver “100 per cent” who refuses service to someone they feel is creating an “unsafe environment,” the definition of which is broadening to include verbal harassment, racism and other forms of poor behaviour that aren’t necessarily physical.
Raising awareness about bystander interventions like Hemmat’s is a critical step in getting people talking about street harassment and how to stop it, said Rebecca Faria.
Faria, founder of Hollaback! Halifax, the local chapter of a national movement to end street harassment, said this story is a reminder that, while there’s been discussion about how well the city’s cab industry protects riders, there are “people within that system that are definitely looking out for their community.”
Street harassment can have a “profound impact” on how people move through public space, Faria said, by making a city or town feel unwelcome or unsafe. It can affect people’s health and employment, and has wide-reaching effects on daily life, she added.
“The so-called minor or less physical (harassment) forms still always carry an implicit threat of escalation,” Faria said. “It’s important to recognize that every time one of those so-called minor things happens, it reminds us what else is possible.”