On Friday this week, I posted on LinkedIn a personal ‘week in review’. It had been a busy week filled with some really positive things for me work-wise and my post celebrated that.
The post was only half the story. What I didn’t mention was the backdrop of this week in the UK that has left me, like many others, upset and angry. I wasn’t intending to add to all the commentary already made – some brilliant and empathic, some with many women sharing their experiences, some very defensive (‘not all men’) and some blatantly misogynist. However, I have been feeling so angry that I have wanted to put something down about my thoughts. So, this is alternative week in review.
With huge ironic timing, the week began with International Women’s Day on Monday and is ending with Mother’s day today. In the UK this week we have witnessed Sarah Everard’s (RIP) kidnap and murder and the subsequent arrest of a police officer. The trending hashtag on Twitter in response to this quickly became #notallmen, displacing Sarah Everard’s name. The conversation about a woman’s kidnap and murder and the experiences that women chose to share of the safety work many of us do when moving around in public, or the harassment or abuse they had received, had been turned round to talk about men’s feelings. The unofficial vigil on Clapham Common saw police arresting women with disproportionate force, which has been rightly condemned; we await an official response from the Met Police arising from the outcry this has provoked.
My little world
This week’s unfolding events have caused me, in an unpurposeful, haphazard way, to recall incidents of harassment or abuse I have been subjected to. They were buzzing around in my head and forming a cumulative picture of part of my experience of being a woman. I have never been raped or ‘seriously’ physically assaulted and I have never been subjected to domestic abuse – it is a sad indictment that I have heard myself say I am ‘lucky’ for not having been subjected to these things. In my friendship circle, I know women who have experienced all of these things. Here are some things that have happened to me, however, that buzzed around in my head this week. They date from some early experiences to a few weeks ago (I’m 50, so that’s a lot of years of this incremental harassment):
Aged 14/15, walking from school to the bus stop, I had my crotch grabbed by a random boy younger than me; aged 15 or so, the GP ‘examined’ my boobs for cancerous lumps when I went in for something entirely different (I was too naive to understand what went on until many years later); my bum has been felt innumerable times in pubs/bars. So that’s crotch, boobs and bum ticked off – parts of my body that are ‘sexualised’ and clearly they belong to boys/men, not an autonomous human being, not me. Standing at a bus stop – two drunk men, one of whom took hold of my hand. It ended fine but one of the things is, you don’t know which of these kind of incidents is going to ‘end fine’ and which is not.
Then there is the verbal: some highlights I can remember: ‘Nice arse, shame about the face’ (walking home from university); ‘I’d spend all my wages on you; I only get 50p a week’ (on the street where I lived, coming home from work); ‘You’re not much to look at – you should make more effort, love’ (walking home from Pride where I’d volunteered in the Women’s Tent all day (the irony! And we don’t have a Women’s Tent any more – but that’s a story for another blog!)). The last incident was a few weeks ago – it was completely inarticulate but entailed a car full of men slowing down, one opening the window to verbalise/jeer something (misogynist/homophobic/both ?) and drive off; this was a busy main road, afternoon, as I was walking into the city centre. Along with the countless ‘cheer up, love, it might never happen’ and ‘smile’ comments, these verbal exclamations inform me I am being assessed – I’m not matching up (or maybe I am matching up given, crotch, boobs and bum experiences) – to an external benchmark of womanhood – there to look nice for the men. Oh, there was also a time when in a workplace I was in, women were given scores out of ten by the men – very literal assessment going on there.
These experiences don’t mean that every time I walk out the door, I’m anticipating them, but, as many other women have shared, I do take the longer, better-lit, route home in the dark, I have held my keys/an object tightly between my fingers, have been anxious at footsteps behind me, I have caught a taxi, I have driven when I’d rather not and would have preferred to have a drink instead. I have also rehearsed in my head while walking home in the dark ‘if something were to happen to me now here, people will ask what was she doing there – why was she taking that route?’ I am not an autonomous human being – I need to be assessed; my motives need to be assessed and it’s for others to judge whether I was right or wrong – walking home.
More in the UK this week
Also this week, Oprah’s interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry aired in the UK. We heard a black woman talk about her intersecting experiences of misogyny and racism and its significant impact on her mental health. More misogyny and racism followed in the media and social media in response to her speaking out, with some disbelieving her account of her own experience. We also heard Jess Phillips MP’s annual reading out in Parliament of the names of women murdered by men in the last year, based on Karen Ingala-Smith’s tireless work on femicide.
Other things this week buzzing around in my head on structural inequalities – Naga Munchetty’s Panorama special ‘It’s time to talk about race’ (on iplayer if you’re in the UK). Something that really struck me on this was a black man telling his son (aged 14) to wear something distinctive, not a ubiquitous black track suit or dark clothing only, so that he would be less likely to be picked up by the police looking for ‘a black man’ wearing dark clothing. The father and son had also had the conversation around what to do if and when the son is stopped by the police. This young man is being assessed through the lens of structural racism.
I also watched Kimberle Crenshaw’s appearance at the WOW festival online. I find Crenshaw one of the most articulate and engaging speakers on structural inequalities. She was asked what her ideal world would look like. She said (more eloquently than me here) it was a world in which your life outcome could not be predicted based on who you were or where you were from. This week has highlighted some of the sexism, misogyny and racism that is the wallpaper of the way many of us live our lives. Yes please to Crenshaw’s future world.