Being a visible woman in the world, traveling, moving, existing, without any apparent other, is such a frustrating, empowering, scary, awakening experience, realization and remembering.
Before heading to Chongqing China to teach an intensive academic language proficiency test, a co-worker casually tells me to, “Go relax a few days in Thailand after teaching”. I arrived in a hotel in Beijing around 11pm, after a long day of travel. I met a Canadian guy in the lobby the next morning, the first foreigner I had spoken to in weeks, and he proceeds to tell me about when he arrived to the same hotel the previous night. “I arrived at night too and walked down the street and found my way to the little town, to buy some smokes and beers and get some food”. These brief comments and those like them do not upset or offend me; they simply make me think, if only it were that easy.
Taking the few days I had for vacation after my work trip to go over to Thailand was something I played with in my mind and yet the idea was interrupted by the reality that there would be too many taxi rides in the dark, too many eyes watching me wander alone- tall, confident, excited, fierce and yet alone. Similarly, I had a craving to venture out of the hotel at night and get some food and explore the dim-lit street sales and groups of people playing cards and drinking in the dark. My mind wandered but my feet kept me in place, in the safety of my quiet hotel room. I couldn’t help but wonder, if anything happened to this strong, handsome, young man, would anyone blame him for wandering out alone at night?
Nothing happened to him and maybe nothing would have happened to me, but I’ve learned not to trust maybe.
If I did wander out at night and was followed, assaulted, taken, uncomfortable, or scared, would it be my fault? Although I seem to get slightly high off the exhilaration of being alone, on the work-grind, exploring new corners, meeting strangers and flowing in and out of spaces like a straight up secret agent.. it’s also a space I’ve never been able to truly let go in.
I don’t remember the first time I wished, if even momentarily, that I was in another body.
Mostly, a male body- a big, strong, intimidating body. The kind of body that has never felt vulnerable, weak, or like a target. The kind that has never had to run, sweating and scared through a metro in Paris at midnight, in transition and on it’s way home from visiting a friend. The kind that hasn’t had to call other men to come walk them home to their apartment because the night lasted a little longer than expected and the streets of Buenos Aires were like the streets of any big city at night, unpredictable. The kind of body that doesn’t feel like a walking sex doll in tight or loose clothing. The kind that rarely thinks about how easy it is to go from feeling safe and strong to feeling utterly unsafe, alone and scared.
I learned to stare men straight in the eyes when I was young. Nobody told me or taught me this self-defence tactic, it was something I picked up on. Although I was often more serious than most kids, I remember growing up thinking that strangers were capable of their worst, before I could trust them. This came from stories and secrets about what happens in your neighbours house, on the street, in the night, in the day, in your own house. This dark reality is something that many people walk with, but mostly one which is familiar to most women. Some are more familiar with the depths of darkness, violence, fear and insecurity more than I, perhaps some less. What amazes me though, is how many people don’t experience this fear, insecurity and consciousness. This is a narrative we know and one that I’ve discussed in classes, with friends, partners, fathers. ”Yeah, yeah, male privilege has something to do with a different consciousness, we get it.” But do we?
Rather than talking about how guilty men should feel, can we start talking about what we can do about it?
Can we start making more space for women to talk about what it’s like to feel scared, vulnerable, victimized, small, helpless, unequal? To be on the defence and to suspect before being able to welcome and trust? To allow images into her head that assault her in a way that we don’t even justify? It’s so different for me to travel alone, anywhere, then it is for my tall blond friend 3 seats back. So different for me to be taken seriously in the “working world”, founded upon power structures that value certain types of strength and dominance and exclude many other forms of leadership. So different for me to walk alone at night, night whom I love and yet mistrust. Last night, I realized how much tension and anxiety had everything to do with the blanket of dark covering Beijing’s sky. How many screams, invasions, murders have been silenced by the blanket of night?
Fast forward, I was walking home from a friend’s house around 10pm, downtown London ON. For a while I was blissfully alone on the street, grazing my hand on every tree and bush and flower patch I walked by, probably whistling softly, eyes wide open. Eventually, I started to approach a smaller, older woman who was walking in front of me. I was walking at a faster pace than she was and I became aware of how my footsteps sounded to her, how my presence would make her feel. I knew the feeling well. I tried to step more softly and make my energy as calming as possible, to ease her own. Soon enough, I passed her and she moved aside quickly and abruptly and shot her gaze at me, to see who I was. I responded with a steady and assuring smile. Her face instantly relaxed. I said hello and she responded and we started chatting. I apologized for startling her and she said she was used to it, she had experiences that made her more jumpy than most and although she knew she was in a safe area, she lived with a familiar tension and defensiveness, one that was not hers to hold. We shared a few more words and then went in opposite directions. “Stay safe” she said to me softly and I nodded gently and said “you too”. Like some unspoken sisterhood between strangers.
I want to find ways that we can get some power back. We can feel strong and whole in our own bodies, capable, not threatened and not like targets, not some little lambs that need to be protected and told to be careful. As if we didn’t know, as if I didn’t know this world is not a safe place for women to roam freely. We learned that before we learned to walk. We’re not always reminded of this understanding. Some women don’t see the need to be alone, perhaps they have the privilege and the spaces they can hop to and from, out of the reach of any potential danger.
Some of us are more privileged than others, who may be forced into the darkness, the streets, the red lights, the war-zones. Others of us choose to chance what we think we have the right and freedom to do, what our brothers often do without a care in the world.
We travel, live alone, go on jogs when the night is young and deliciously fresh, dark enough to feel hidden, but never quite. The body of a man or an invisibility cloak, that’s what I’ve wished for. This narrative isn’t fair for any of us. Let’s open our eyes, protect our sisters and swallow reality without sugar coating, interrupting our stories or giving people “the benefit of the doubt”. Let’s stop saying rapists are monsters, predators and creeps or worse, harmless. Let’s stop blaming women for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, in the wrong clothes, with the wrong body. I remember writing this, sitting on the plane home from China, surrounded by images and action films of men chasing women and women looking as helpless as I’ve learned to feel. This is some institutionalized, colonial, patriarchal, out-dated, power-play BS that needs to be deconstructed. Let’s keep an eye out for our mothers, sisters, daughters. You see a girl walking home alone, keep an eye out for her. You see a guy being too aggressive, non-consenual, violent, creepy, do something about it. You notice the video, tv show, movie you are watching is highlighting violence against women, sexualizing and objectifying them, you turn your critical thinking skills on, filter that shit and/or turn it off completely.
Even writing this, I resist the way I’ve painted women out to be helpless. We are not helpless, we are not weak, we are not always vulnerable and victimized. I don’t want to perpetuate a narrative that creates fear and disempowerment but I want to be real about what many of us face. I want us to change the dynamic of power structures and relationships, starting with creating spaces for conversations. I want us to demand better entertainment and media and to have higher standards for ourselves and our communities. I want us to all share our stories and struggles and for others to recognize and honour them. I want us to consider emotional intelligence, femininity and women’s voices powerful. Street harassment, rape culture, oppressive power relationships, domestic violence, the objectification of women identified bodies, the devaluing of women’s work and potential to lead, heal and write new narratives- we have to see them before we can address them.