Four months ago, it was 6 pm, and I had just walked off the main road into a dimly lit sideroad. I was wearing a loose hoodie, men’s low crotch sweatpants, and hiking boots. I had my earphones in listening to music on my way to a class. From the corner of my eye, I see a man who roughly looked above 60 looking at me from far away, so naturally, I try to keep walking but keep him in my peripheral vision and turn my music all the way down. He was still staring. So I started speeding up even more.
Then to my worst fear, he starts calling at me. He’s saying in Spanish, “young lady, can I use your phone.” So I stopped and weighed my options for what felt like the longest three seconds and turned around, deciding that I could outrun this man If he tries to grab me. He then comes over right next to me. “I can’t open my phone to call this number, please help me, maybe I can use your phone?” So I ask him for his phone and see it’s a brick phone.
I still remember how to unlock, so I did and typed the number in and called to see why it wouldn’t work, but it went through. Thinking I had been tricked into something, the man instead wouldn’t stop thanking me and took the phone to speak to the landlord and walked off towards the house. And just like that, I experienced, for the first time in my 23 years, not being harassed by a male stranger wanting to approach me.
Being a woman requires a lot of unlearning, a lot of rethinking, and a lot of reflection. Now more than ever, many women are aware that the harsh and unfair standards that have been set for them are ones that should have no place in our society today, this is focusing on women’s experiences of dealing with harassment from men in the UK. To me, London has always had its way of presenting itself as a city full of prospects. Living in London, one of the big cities, I had this idea growing up that I had the tools and crowd I need to overcome any form of sexism.
I spent the majority of my teenage years relentlessly jumping over what I thought was the biggest hurdle – proving I was good enough to play football with the boys, and showing I was just as good at subjects that were deemed only for boys to take, as my belief was that being in the UK meant girls had plenty of opportunities. Role models growing up like Emma Watson and the England women’s national football team made me believe I had that same potential for reaching my goal and exceeding expectations men put on me. I could make classmates treat me with respect. It was only when I started venturing outside the protective bubble of being at school most of the time, that I realized: I wasn’t given the time and space to earn respect from those who didn’t know me.
Suddenly I had no control over what people could think about me, and I had no power to fight it. My life since then has been taking everything I was allowed, and being grateful each day for not having worse things happen to me. A year ago, I received an offer to become a teaching assistant in a small city named Cáceres in Extremadura, Spain. What was my first thought? “oh god, it’s in the middle of nowhere, who knows what could happen to me”. Little did I know that this experience gave me a glimpse into a dream world without the dread of objectification.
There are unwritten rules, a sort of woman’s survival guide that they have to abide by to stay safe. I wouldn’t even have to explain this to other women when having conversations with each other; we simply knew. These are only a few of the many things women do to feel a little more protected against the possible threat of being assaulted and sexually harassed:
- We hold our keys in our hands pointing outwards.
- We try to conceal earphones we wear, or wear them openly but do not play music so we can stay vigilant for people approaching out of sight.
- Deciding to divert from our current walking path or walking as distanced as possible the second we see we have to walk past a group of men.
- Pretend to – or actually – go on the phone with someone so we do not feel alone and as vulnerable to an attack.
There are many more I could list. These were the few that came of the top off my head. Whenever I sit and explain to a man the things I do to protect myself, my mind goes blank. Not because I’m hesitant to start a discussion, it’s because I don’t think about these methods of self-protection. These aren’t things women think about. This is our instinct kicking in all the time. And even when we are at a point where we think about the lengths we go to in order to protect ourselves, we dismiss it.
When telling someone my ‘minor’ experiences of harassment of having men groping you when walking past you, or men following you down three streets before asking why I look so good and if they can ask for my number, then turn around and retrace their steps once rejected, becomes a difficult moment as I only realize it’s harassment when someone tells me it is. Women’s bodies absorb trauma. We do not reject it. We don’t think rejecting the trauma is an option. Therefore we absorb it and shove it in the back of our minds like a man would if he walked past someone he knew – takes in the information and leaves it in the back of his mind.
I always thought that the problem was men themselves. An innate thing that there seems to be no end to. I accepted the small sacrifices because, to me, it felt like a lifetime away before men got the message. As there was no end in sight, I endured the slurs in hopes that one day a global wash will come over men to treat us with respect. Until then, I thought: “you would never see these people again” “you need to get on with your day” “If you retaliate, they will do something worse.”
My experiences in London and in Southampton, where I went to university. Walking as the ice cream driver yelled things at me, sitting on a funfair ride and be groped by men while having no escape, are things I want to talk about with women because we feel each other’s pain and know how to comfort each other. It was when I moved to Spain and started talking to men about it did my mindset on speaking up about harassment change.
The next chapter of my life started on the 25th of September 2019 when I ended up getting a placement in Cáceres, Spain. I had never even heard of the region Extremadura, let alone the city, so I couldn’t for the life of me know what to expect. All I remember is my concern about even fewer people being around to help me if anything happened. Not knowing the area and the language made me feel even more vulnerable than how I did in my home neighborhood. The first week of being there, I already had spoken to more strangers than I did the past year in London. That’s on Londoners refusing to show human emotion to anyone else.
Every day consisted of me exploring my new city and getting into taxis, asking strangers what place they would recommend for me to rent. Of course, I had to document the nice changes I experienced to my friends back home. Then I also documented another thing: I had posted an Instagram story in celebration because it had been a whole seven days without being catcalled or inappropriately touched. The replies to my story were interesting, to say the least.
Women always have long well-needed discussions to help cope with harassment with other women, talking to men about it is different because I never know how they will react. The men in my messages couldn’t believe I was serious. I got a whole load of: “What do you mean a WHOLE 7 days?” “That’s not a good thing??” It was unthinkable to me that men didn’t understand the struggle women go through.
Cáceres was an eye-opening environment for me because it made me very self-aware of my anxiety towards being approached by men. Of course, I am not using this piece to speak for all cities or smaller regions in Spain. As I became more accustomed to the regular meetups at bars that started at 11 pm and would end at 3 am, I did the thirty-minute walk home—every single time. The most freeing moment for me was when my guy friend asked if I wanted him to walk me back, and I said no for the first time in my life to that question.
I would have my music playing and even sing along to the songs in my earphones in the quietest of alleys. Little by little, I started noticing changes in my daily patterns. I thought the reason I immediately fell in love with Cáceres was because of the medieval old city it had to offer and the climate. I realized that it was because I’ve never walked outside my house at most past 10 pm in the UK. In uni, I would walk to clubs all the time, but I would make sure I was with people in well-lit streets – still did not stop the many times I would get harassed.
Big city culture for women feels safe in theory because of the idea of people being around, lights being on – the second you leave the main roads and enter a side street anything can happen. But why is it then, that my friends from huge cities like Hong Kong experience far less harassment, or at least feel confident to scrutinize men then and there on the spot at the time they get harassed.
It is safe to say that there is not an area in the UK free of harassment. So naturally, women continue to keep their guard up regardless of the time, place, atmosphere, and it feels especially more tiring now that I know what it’s like to live in an environment where being uncomfortable in public is not the case every single time. Growing up in London has made me and every woman here I know keep to themselves about everything, there are too many people that you become really aware of personal space and know exactly how to compact your body and filter through crowds and avoid as much contact as possible. Yet It seems like it will never be enough.
It’s heartbreaking and bittersweet that I hope women take comfort in this because ultimately women should not experience this. Many women have spoken about being so unaware of the possibilities of simple freedom, a great example that really opened my eyes as well was a tweet that went viral, asking women what they would do if men had a curfew from 9 pm.
It is the lack of community, and this isn’t a community in the sense where you know everyone in the neighborhood and have a great bond with them. It’s the lack of seeing members of your community as equal. Women are targeted in schools, families, work, social groups, and countless other ‘communities’ we’re supposed to feel safe in because someone sees us as an easy source of temporary pleasure because we wouldn’t dare cause commotion or create a scene. My experience of being a woman in Britain is that we are taught to be complacent and take the harassment because ‘it is what it is.’
Even in environments like school and university, the punishment men receive never truly live up to how bad things are so it feels like we never are safe. We’re easily accessible. So they decide to take a small bit out of their day to torment us and not remember who we are the next day, meanwhile, us women couldn’t forget if we tried – we will always be scared of a repeat of an incident whether it was 10 days ago or 10 years ago. It is this natural instinct that I have now become much more aware of and hope we find ways to educate predators and our fellow sisters on how the numbness to harassment can blur our vision on taking control of our own lives.