I am a woman and I no longer want to feel afraid

(Image courtesy of Unsplash)

19th March 2021

By Alina Khan

Trigger warning: this article contains reference to sexual assault and sexual violence.

In 2020, women were 3.9 times more likely than men to be the victims of any kind of sexual assault, 10 times more likely to the victim of rape,3.9 times more likely to be the victim of indecent exposure or unwanted sexual touching and twice as likely to be stalked. These statistics on a spreadsheet represent real life women whose lives have been changed because of the selfish and immoral actions of others. Sarah Everard’s life was taken because she was a woman and she was alone. Her tragic death has sent shockwaves through the nation as increasing numbers of women are coming forward to say ‘I am afraid but I don’t want to be anymore’ or ‘I have experienced sexual harassment or even sexual assault and I don’t want one more woman to go through this.’

Being a woman there are a common set of rules that we follow, no one necessarily has to tell us what those rules are, they’re ingrained in our brains and we’re told if we stick to them then we’ll be safe. ‘Get a cab with friends’, ‘make sure to share your location so we know where you are’, ‘message me when you’re home’, ‘try to stay in well-lit areas’, ‘make sure you can be seen by others’ - the list goes on. Sarah Everard stuck to the rules, she wore hi-vis , she rang her boyfriend to let him know where she was, she walked through some of the most populated, brightly-lit parts of the capital and yet that still wasn’t enough? How can we live our lives if we can’t even feel safe walking along the street? It has become clear now that things need to change in order to make this world a safer place for women because playing by the rules doesn’t work if the game favours men.

I am a university student experiencing some of the best years of life but also some of the scariest. A study has shown that 4,500 students from 153 different institutions who took part 62% had experienced sexual violence at UK universities. This figure rises to 70% of female respondents, 48% of which have experienced sexual assault, and 73% of respondents with a disability, where 54% have experienced sexual assault. So if I don’t feel safe walking along the streets that I live in and I don’t feel safe walking around my university campus, then where can I feel safe?

When speaking to other girls about their experiences, it was clear to me we all share a common feeling of fear. For the purpose of this article, the women wish to remain anonymous but some of the comments made were:

‘I was followed home once in broad daylight on my way back from school, I had to run up to a family I didn’t know so that he would leave me alone’

‘I was 13 and a man in a car got out and asked if he could have my number and if I wanted a lift home, a politely said no and ran all the way home.’

‘My drink was spiked in a club and I had to be taken home’

‘A guy I used to see on the train everyday would constantly ask for my number after I told him I had a boyfriend’

‘I’ve had my bum grabbed by boys I don’t know in a club when I was walking past them’

I have only given a handful of examples, but every one of my female friends has at least one story they could share. I have a dozen stories I could share myself. Being raped or sexually assaulted is only one side of a very large spectrum of ways that women can be made to feel unsafe and uncomfortable. Being followed, groped, harassed, cat-called, slut-shamed; all of these things which may not seem like a big deal because ‘it’s just banter’ or because we should ‘take it as a compliment’ adds up to the point where a girl doesn’t feel safe no matter where she is, what she is doing, or what she is wearing. If Sarah Everard’s tragic story has taught us anything it is that even if we keep our heads down and mind our own business, we still can’t guarantee our safety.

There has been a backlash to the #reclaimthesestreets movement sparked by Sarah’s death as some people feel that it is attacking and accusing all men. We are aware that the problem is not all men and that not all men have committed crimes but all women have at least one story they could tell, all women don’t want to be harassed, followed, groped, assaulted and all women want to feel safe. By saying it is not all men misses the point of all of this, the point that women are currently trying to make is that simply not committing a crime isn’t enough anymore, men need to now become more active in making the world a safer place for women. If you see a friend get turned down by a girl and he carries on badgering her, tell him to move on, if you see a girl walking home alone and she looks agitated just keep your distance as much as you can, if you’re in the car and see a girl walking don’t slow down and roll down the window to say something to her, just keep on driving. These things may seem miniscule but can mean a lot to women.

Ignorance cannot be an excuse anymore, more needs to be done in order to ensure a better world for future generations. More street-lighting, more CCTV are great practical solutions but we have a responsibility to educate ourselves and be mindful of how we act. Now is the time for a discourse to start about women’s safety, this cannot be another trend that gets lost in next week's headlines. Women should no longer have to fear men.

Things won’t change over-night but the fact that this is now even part of the conversation and that most men are willing to listen is already a step in the right direction. Sarah did not die in vain, her death has struck the hearts of all women in this country, as we say enough is enough. We are not sexual beings to be used, abused or objectified. We are not weak and vulnerable to be preyed upon.

I am a woman and I have the right to feel safe walking along the street and arrive home untouched. Sarah had that right taken away from her but her legacy will live on as we campaign to reclaim my streets, your streets, Sarah’s streets. Let’s seek to change the narrative so that every girl can come home safely.

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First published in 1965, InQuire is the University of Kent student newspaper.

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