By Sol Noya Carreno
One of my favourite things about moving to England was how safe I felt in the street. Back where I’m from, street harassment is a reality of everyday life. I would never wear earphones while walking – if I chose to walk on my own, which was a rare occurrence and I only ever did in daylight, on the leafy residential streets between my grandmother’s house, my school and the grocery store. But in Durham? I could walk to Tesco at night if short on groceries for dinner. I could listen to podcasts on my way to a lecture, or to a playlist when going home from the library. Hell, I could finally wear a skirt or a sundress to go about my day without feeling like I was exposing myself to unwanted comments. The keys in my pocket were there just in case, but mostly they were a means to getting in and out of my house.
What an idiot I was.
The truth is, as a woman, there is nothing you can do that will guarantee your safety. You can wear flat shoes and text your friends that you’re walking home. You can carry your keys and choose the best-lit route. And it still won’t be enough.
The honeymoon period of moving to England, a supposedly safe society, ended in Epiphany term of my first year, when a friend and I got catcalled on the Bailey. And if that hadn’t done the trick, the time a man tried to follow me on North Road even though I was visibly uncomfortable and trying to get away from him, certainly did. England might be safer than Peru (Lima is one of the top five cities globally for street harassment incidents), but for a woman, there isn’t a place in the world where you can go about your day being certain that you’re not going to be harassed for your body, your clothes, or the simple fact of your gender. The Guardian published a study the other day, confirming what many of us have been saying for years: 97% of young women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment.
And now, after hearing the devastating news about Sarah Everard, the illusion that the UK was going to be a safe haven for women – for me – has been completely shattered. The case is proof that a woman can do everything she’s been told will keep her safe and it still won’t work. The reaction, moreover, has once again exposed society’s ugly tendency of victim-blaming.
I hope that, if anything comes from all this, that it serves as a wake-up call. That there are thousands of Sarah Everards in the world, every day, and that the violence against them doesn’t get the attention it should because they don’t fit society’s picture of a victim – a trans woman, an immigrant, a woman of colour. That what we are telling women when we say, “stay safe, don’t drink, don’t go out on your own after sunset” is really “make sure that the victim is the other girl who didn’t have as much good sense as you.” That what this constant messaging tells men is “she’s fair game, because she wasn’t protecting herself. She should have known better.”
To the men reading this, if you’re still with me: please sit in the discomfort that this may have brought you. If it makes you angry, or offended, probe deeper. Ask what it is that makes you angry, and why. Do you feel complicit? Called out? Should you? I know it’s difficult, but try to de-centre yourself from it in your reflections: if your reaction is I would never, turn that into questioning what you’ve let other men get away with, from “locker room banter” to slut-shaming. Don’t turn the work that we’re trying to do in changing the culture around violence against women into effort to convince you that you’re one of the good ones and to convince women to protect themselves. Because that’s effort that we could all be putting towards dismantling the sexism and racism built into our society that fuels this violence.
Sarah Everard deserved better. All women deserve better, no matter what their actions are. I hope Women’s History Month of 2021 ends having marked an improvement in keeping women safe, in the UK and beyond.
Photograph of Crossgate: Jack Lines