– Erin, London
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to me to live as a woman. How is my experience of the world affected by this female body that I so contentedly inhabit? I am aware that I often excuse the instances of misogyny I encounter in my life with the thought that I experience a lot more freedom than so many other women in the world, and I should be grateful for that. But is this really a valid basis for making allowances for behaviour that makes me uncomfortable?
I often excuse the instances of misogyny I encounter in my life with the thought that I experience a lot more freedom than so many other women in the world…
A few years ago I went to India with a female friend. The level of harassment we faced – from being constantly and unashamedly stared at and touched, to having photos taken without our permission, to having a strange man try to climb into my berth on a train – tainted our experience of that magical country. It made me conscious of my gender as a factor in making a decision about where to go and with whom – something I hadn’t really considered much before. Whilst I felt annoyed by this I also felt incredibly blessed that the worst thing I’d ever had to put up with was verbal harassment and a few intrusions into my personal space. Then, last Christmas I travelled to Istanbul. I went with one girlfriend, who is a long-time favourite travel buddy. Neither of us did much research for this trip, jaded world travellers that we are. A few days before the trip it occurred to me that we might face some hassle, two women travelling alone in the Middle East. It turned out to be comparatively very relaxed in Istanbul. It’s a vibrant city with a fascinating history and culture as well as great food. We wandered mostly undisturbed through the streets. The attention we received was all good natured, flirtatious and fun. It was only when we walked through the streets one evening in the company of a man that we realise how different that experience is from when we are alone. Suddenly there were no lingering stares, comments or requests for photos. His presence meant we had already been claimed apparently. A waiter who told us he looks like Antonio Banderas (we didn’t see the resemblance quite as readily as he did) chatted to us as we sat at an outdoor table in the front of the restaurant where he was trying to attract passers-by to come in and dine. He was quite the salesman and it was all very amusing until our food arrived and he still wouldn’t go away, touching our hands and hair in jest. It didn’t seem to occur to him that perhaps the two of us just wanted to have dinner together (on Christmas Day no less!) undisturbed.
Once again, we were in a situation where we couldn’t just enjoy a social situation without being worried about giving the wrong idea.
A few evenings later we met a man who approached my friend to ask if he could use her lighter. She lives in Berlin, where he is from, so they chatted about that. We asked him for suggestions of where to go to hear some good music as he had been living in Istanbul for some time. He was polite and respectful, and invited us to join him to meet his Turkish cousin at a club nearby. Given how busy the area was and how nice he was, it seemed safe enough to follow him. Once we got into the club and met his cousin the dynamic changed from three people just hanging out together making conversation to two men making unwanted advances. The German took his lead from his Turkish cousin who grabbed me around the waist before he’d even found out my name. Once again, we were in a situation where we couldn’t just enjoy a social situation without being worried about giving the wrong idea. We tried politely but firmly telling them we have boyfriends and we’re just interested in friendship, to no avail. It seemed the only options were to be obviously rude so that they would get the point, or leave the situation altogether. We wanted to stay and dance ourselves, but when they wouldn’t even let us go to the bathroom without walking us there and waiting for us outside, we became very uncomfortable and decided to leave. They were not very pleased about this, something they made clear to us! This behaviour isn’t as outright disgusting as the unknown man who stood behind me on the dance floor and repeatedly grabbed my bottom (he got the fright of his life when I caught his hand as hard and started yelling at him – not what he expected but he picked the wrong girl to molest), but that doesn’t make it acceptable. Nothing in our behaviour that evening indicated anything other than two adults wanting to have a pleasant interaction with another tourist. We would have behaved no differently had it been a woman rather than a man who had asked to use the lighter. I’m not saying this experience is unique to travellers. I have had very similar experiences living in London. What I’m worried about isn’t being able to stand up for myself, which I can certainly do! What upsets me is the nature of these interactions, which boil down to either allowing the kind of physical contact or language that I’m not really comfortable with out of politeness or a desire not to have a confrontation, or reject it emphatically enough that it is clearly understood as a “no” rather than “playing hard to get” by a person who could then become very aggressive and unpleasant, or worse. Even if safety isn’t a factor, this kind of experience can ruin an evening.
Who are these men anyway? They’re not my boyfriend, or my father, or my best friends (I hope!) So who are these men and what kind of upbringing have they had? I enjoyed the recent coverage of twenty-one year old video games journalist Alanah Pearce, who decided to deal with young boys trolling her with sexist comments online in a unique way – by messaging their mothers through Facebook. If I could speak to the mothers of these men, what would they say? It is highly distressing that as we enter the year 2015 there are women who cannot make their own decisions about their careers, relationships and religious beliefs. There are women who don’t have any control over their own bodies, which legally belong to their husbands or fathers. This means that more than ever as educated women in first world countries we should not excuse the incessant but less severe instances of sexism that we face. “Just let it go, things could be worse” is not the way to create changes in attitudes. Movements like The Everyday Sexism Project are trying to do just that. This website invites women to share instances of sexism. “They might be serious or minor, outrageously offensive or so niggling and normalised that you don’t even feel able to protest”, the site says. “By sharing your story you’re showing the world that sexism does exist, it is faced by women everyday and it is a valid problem to discuss.”
“Until women themselves reject stigma and refuse to feel shame for the way others treat them, they have no hope of achieving full human stature.” Germaine Greer