When the #MeToo movement took the world by storm, men across the globe felt threatened, attacked and “victimised” through women’s unabashed naming and shaming. While men, too, are products of conditioning reinforced by decades of societal traditions and media portrayals, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge those; we have to hold them accountable for what comes next. Men especially cannot police another’s movement any more than they can create equality out of thin air.
Raheel Khursheed summed this up perfectly in a previous post: “the harassment and assault [towards women] hasn’t been refined or nuanced. It has been cruel and relentless. [This] is the beginning of an equal rights movement that is aiming to reset the norms across a spectrum of systemic, unequal, dehumanising, and violent behaviour that [men] haven’t been at the receiving end of.”
The #MeToo movement has brought out just how widespread the experience of sexual harassment and assault is – but women have known this for years. Certainly, every gender group has faced its own challenges to varying degrees of difficulty, even within themselves, as they are by no means homogenous categories. However, the particular experience of women as a whole is so deep-rooted, so pervasive and so internalised that it’s almost impossible to explain to anyone who doesn’t have to go through it.
From wearing headphones without music, to clutching onto pepper spray, constantly adjusting our clothing and going way out of our way to avoid incessant approaches from men, women have to constantly be aware of their surroundings. For some, it’s simply a given and even recognising it and fighting back is unheard of. What so many men consider benign eve teasing or casual flirting is an annoying, scary and exhausting reality for women everywhere. It has been ingrained into us our whole lives that anything could go wrong at the drop of a hat, in broad daylight or in a crowded train as much as it could in the middle of the night or on a lonely road.
There is not a single woman I know who hasn’t had to instinctively, subconsciously make such decisions every day to protect herself from sexual harassment, assault, or worse. Not a single one. No matter what she looks like, how old she is, what her nationality is, where in the world she lives. So I posted a simple call-out on my personal Instagram and Facebook, asking the women I knew to reach out to me detailing some of the decisions they make every day to be safe, intentionally or otherwise.
I was prepared to be angry, sad, emotional, and even a little hopeful – but I was not prepared for the flood of responses I got, from every corner of the world, that mirrored each other almost precisely. My Instagram story stayed up for 24 hours, and it got just over 200 views (admittedly a small, privileged and younger sample relative to the affected population). A few people shared it on their respective accounts as well. Within a few hours I had about 70 responses. At the end of the day, I had 162 responses.
Some of those were short, matter-of-fact, almost resigned. Others were detailed and deeply personal. I’ve shared only a few of them here, lightly edited for length and clarity. “I spend forever picking outfits because I travel by public transport. I also don’t call any service person, like a plumber, when my boyfriend isn’t home and I know I’ll be home alone. I don’t go out anywhere late by myself. I always call someone when I’m walking by myself at night to make sure someone knows what I am up to,” says Kavya, a friend and colleague based in Mumbai.
“I avoid wearing short clothes that end above the knees while traveling in public transportation and wear my backpack on a crowded bus to avoid exposing my butt while standing,” says Madhuvanti, a young woman from India. Riya, a friend from West Bengal, expresses a similar sentiment and emphasises that she actively avoids all clothing that shows cleavage in the hopes that men won’t shamelessly gawk at her. Stuti, another friend, echoes the habit: “I always have a cover-up on hand if I’m wearing something sleeveless. I go through the extra effort of wearing something “decent” when I open the door for packages or the garbage collector.”
“I carry a Swiss Army knife with me all the time. In unpleasant situations where men stare at me or make comments around me, I have thoughts on how I’d try and save myself if they harmed me. The psychological torture these thoughts cause almost every day is part of my life and I have no option but to try and adapt to it,” writes one Indian woman.
“If I notice a man walking behind me, I always stop and let him walk in front of me to avoid getting touched or kidnapped. I never go into an empty place alone. I always cover myself up whenever I’m out alone or with people I don’t trust. I don’t drink outside unless I’m with someone I trust completely,” responds another woman from Mumbai.
In fact, out of the 162 women that responded: 154 said they consciously wear fuller clothing to avoid showing skin; 151 said they don’t walk outside or take public transport when it’s late; 133 said they deliberately keep an unpleasant, bitchy or frowning expression and don’t make eye contact with men to discourage them from approaching; 129 said they carry some sort of weapon (pocket knives, pepper spray, key between the fingers, some even said a broken shard of glass); 128 said they take note of the license plate number of the taxi or rickshaw they’re in/their Uber ride details and send it to friends or family; 122 said they keep their GPS on even if they know the way or take “safer” but longer routes; and 112 said they fake a phone call – or even that they have a boyfriend – to escape unwanted situations. Several others’ responses included clutching their belongings tighter, keeping their phones charged, crossing the road to avoid certain people, taking frequent self defence classes and constantly looking over their shoulder in every day situations.
When I posted this call-out, I foolishly assumed this would be a heightened experience for women in India, given how deep-rooted rape culture is in this country. However, I received over 30 responses from friends from different countries or Indians currently living abroad with pretty much the same, frustrating, heartbreaking realities.
“At a bar, I never have a drink that I haven’t watched being made. I always check to see when a friend has left and reached their destination, calling if they forget to text. I lie about having a boyfriend to avoid overly intrusive taxi drivers. I make sure my car doors are always locked, and I get them tinted to the maximum legal limit because drivers often stare into my window at traffic lights. I keep my WhatsApp profile picture private and in apps like Uber make sure I have a picture with my father or any male,” says my cousin who lives in Dubai. “It’s exhausting.”
Michaela, a friend of mine from Washington, USA, shares perhaps the most poignant story of all. “Something I have stopped doing so much recently is smiling. While I have a tendency to smile or laugh when I’m nervous, I generally smile because I myself am happy, or I want to show that I’m friendly and try to bring other people happiness. And unfortunately, the older I get the more experiences I’ve had with overly-friendly, intrusive men taking advantage of what they perceive to be a smile just for them. I don’t smile at men in the grocery store, on the bus, or in the street anymore, and I’m suspicious of men who look at me for even a second too long. It’s tiring to entertain them when they take a smile as an invite for conversation, even if they are simply lonely and don’t mean any harm. I’m far too paranoid for that now,” she says.
“I recently started dating my girlfriend, and that’s a whole other can of worms,” she continues. “We have to modify our behavior within our relationship both so that others don’t misbehave, and so we can feel safe. I live in a progressive place, and still this stuff happens. It seems like whenever we’re out in public together, showing even the tiniest amount of affection, there’s one pair of eyes that clings onto us for far too long, a laugh, an uneasy whisper. Some of the stares from men make my skin crawl and make me feel like I’ve done something wrong, like they see my girlfriend and still want something from me. I could go on forever about this, but the sad thing is that I think all women can.”
She is absolutely right. These are only a handful of stories from a handful of young women within my own social circles. But this is a universal experience for women all around the world. What is so self-evident to women seems to be completely lost on so many men, particularly those who don’t realise why their behaviour can be so traumatic and aggravating. When we have to live every day with such enduring discomfort and fear, we get used to compromising even the most basic of our freedoms. We should not have to change how we dress, carry ourselves in public or stop doing the things that make us happy because men might get “too distracted, too tempted, or unable to control themselves.” What we have to do instead is band together and make our voices so loud that they are absolutely deafening, because it’s time for men to listen. It’s time that men realise this and very actively self-reflect, because this is not, and never should be, a woman’s burden to bear. It’s time that we progress collectively as a society. Equality does not come out of thin air.
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