A ‘caller’ listening into this week’s NVC Academy discussion on Privilege, this time from a woman’s perspective, asked the all female panel how each of them saw the link between physical violence against women and systemic violence (violence in the structure of our society, our economics, health, politics benefit men rather than the female experience).
One woman talked about being at university in a foreign country and noticing how she was picked out by men in cars for sexually aggressive comments. Another the result of violence for women is to live in fear, not have access to resources and at a systemic level, it is ‘making women responsible for men’s violence’. We still see this, ‘being made responsbile’ in courts and newspapers. I myself find it hard to imagine that if the university student had worn different clothes, dyed her blond hair she would have got less comments, though if she had worn purdhah probably more. There is a glimmer of ‘she could have done something to avoid the comments’. Then I realise I am participating, I recall how as a teenager growing up in an affluent, white, small town I would have sexualised comments shouted at me from men in cars as they drove by, almost everyday. It never happened when I was not alone and I didn’t tell anyone, partly I enjoyed people noticing that I was growing up, partly I didn’t want my freedom taken off me by my parents who might worry, but I worried. The drivers of the cars could see I was alone. but I didn’t know who they were, they could follow me. I wasn’t wearing clothes ‘asking for it’, I was in my school uniform and it was 8.00 am so everyone of those men shouting knew I was under 16 years. And this knowledge helps me to question my unconscious assumption that the university student could have mitigated it. If I didn’t have that personal experience how could I question the insidious assumption that maybe the woman was choosing to have those comments.
One of the scariest experiences of my life was being in a student part of Manchester with an early transport connection to make. I went out wit my suitcase and coat and stood at a bus top near my flat. The streets were empty, it was probably 4.00am, I thought Iw as entities to do this, I was just saving a bit of cab fare. A car slowed down, with two men in it. I showed horror on my face, I may have shouted something unformed, I certainly ran away, I ran towards my flat, I called a cab, I don’t remember, but I didn’t try to get a bus then and wouldn’t do that now. I learn that I had no place to be out by myself at 4.00am, I may live there, but the streets are not a safe place for me. I rationalised, I told myself, maybe they thought I was a sex worker as ‘ordinary’ people were in bed. They didn’t think this. Where I was would be very bad for business, with a suitcase and coat and looking for a bus, even when I and other women are simply living our lives we are responsible for the ‘misinterpretations’ of violent men and we blame each other very subtly, ‘don’t you know it’s unsafe, how could you take that risk, you should have worn something different, been somewhere else’. I suppose offering such advice and trying to enjoy the attention (as I didn’t really enjoy the comments as a teenager, they were telling me my worth was measured by someone else eyes, I was simply to naive to process what was going on) allows us to feel more in control, we can change our experience, we can be safe and respected. But it shields us from a much uglier truth, we are scared to take up space because we fear physical harm even in our homes or the streets we live on.
And I choose to live safely in Hong Kong where women in my social class do not experience physical aggression from strangers on the streets, even in active wear, its unheard of and then I think of something more sinister, in the town I am from it is acceptable. It’s OK to shout at school girls, to stop in front of women alone in the early hours. Where I am from behaving in a predatory way when you know you are safe and strong is tolerated, accepted and the norm I grew up in. And to accommodate that rather than celebrating my first period when I was an adolescent I built esteem around their leers.