Debate on women’s safety

Image above: Sarah Everard

What happened to Sarah Everard strikes a chord with every woman. Not because kidnap, abduction and murder are commonplace. They are not. But violence against women is.

What happened to her is the realisation of the fear, hard wired in all of us, of what could happen. Usually we brush it off as paranoia. The product of an over-active imagination, as you notice someone walking behind you and you quicken your step, looking about for lights and people to join. Unfortunately it’s not paranoia. The knowledge that men can be predatory and violent is something we live with.

The random act of violence by an unknown man on a female victim may be rare but social media is full of women giving their accounts of how men they thought were friends, who sometimes they’d known for years, took advantage of a moment of vulnerability to rape or sexually abuse them. We know that domestic violence has risen substantially during the periods of lockdown.

For once the conversation has turned to the behaviour of men, not just focusing on how women can adapt and alter their behaviour, their dress code; make themselves invisible or dependent.

Liliana Martinez is a young American woman who’s recently moved to London for work and is living and working in Chiswick. Read her piece about the impact of Sarah’s death.

Image above: Junction of Acton Lane and Chiswick High Rd – Jon Perry jonperryenlightenshade

There are some decent blokes out there – but how can you tell?

By Liliana Martinez

I moved to London a month ago and I can already give you a list of things I’ve done to make sure I stay safe in my everyday life. I chose a flat on the second floor of a building because the ground floor didn’t feel safe enough.

I cycle rather than walk most of the time – especially at night – because it makes me feel like I can quickly get away from any creep that might try to follow or accost me. Whenever I’m on a quiet street alone – even if I’m in the safest area I know – I’m looking over my shoulder.

Every woman you know has similar techniques, and they could list them for you without a second thought. It doesn’t matter much, though, if you’re unlucky – like Sarah Everard was last week when she tried to walk home from a friend’s house and never made it.

Sarah’s tragic story will feel familiar to so many women who have been attacked in the street, sexually assaulted or worse. But the renewed focus on women’s safety has also led to productive conversations around how women can feel safer in their daily lives without being asked to change their behaviour because of a crime committed by someone else.

Case in point, a viral Twitter thread that emerged this week in which @MrJayPerry – a musical theatre actor on the Hamilton London cast – crowdsources ideas for how men walking near women at night can help them feel safer.

“I am super conscious as a man when walking behind lone women at night, often I cross the street to alleviate as much anxiety as possible. What other advice can you offer me to be a better ally in this situation?!” he asked.

The post received more than 40,000 likes and thousands of replies and suggestions, many sprawling out into separate threads in which people exchanged ideas and discussed the issue of women’s safety in this metropolis we all call home.

It’s a great thread, full of positivity and mutual learning. One man recounted how he saw a woman involved in an obviously unwanted conversation with a man on the bus, so he engaged the man in conversation instead.

Another asked for ideas on how to intervene in situations where he can see a woman is uncomfortable but doesn’t want to add to the perception of threat.

Most women just begged, “please just ignore me on the street! Look at your phone or be absorbed in something else.”

At least this way we can avoid the creepy, lingering stares.

The reality is all men are a potential threat

A piece in The Independent by Victoria Richards really hit home for me.

“There are cries of ‘not all men’ on social media today – the thing is, we already know it’s not all men. But that misses the point; women know it’s not all men, but they don’t know which ones it is, so we end up having to be wary of all men – by necessity” she writes.

When I’m walking alone down my street – here in Chiswick, which is by all accounts a very safe area – I can’t tell if the bloke following me at an uncomfortably close distance is ‘good’ or not. They don’t wear signs, after all!

I need to operate under the assumption that this person could do me harm, because there is a credible risk – based on my past experiences, and the experiences of every woman I know – that I might be in danger. The harm of making a false assumption about somebody pales in comparison to the harm of my potential injury or death.

Last weekend I was walking down Chiswick High Road, enjoying the beautiful sunny day and exploring the shops that would make up my new neighbourhood. Here is where I can buy bread, here for meat and fish, and a cute burger place just on the corner.

But my hyper-awareness has never really gone away after years of living in Morocco, where I was followed and stalked multiple times, or Italy, where gangs of young men taunted me from street corners when I was walking home at night.

This bright afternoon in Chiswick, I felt safe, but I was still on my guard. These are habits you don’t just lose. I noticed a man in a baseball cap in front of me pause, turn and stop to look at a shop window. The next thing I know, he was walking behind me instead. It could be easy to just brush it off, but after several blocks, he was still behind me. I turned onto the green and walked to the middle, sat. He entered the green too. Sat 30 metres away, looking at me. It was broad daylight with dozens of people passing.

I don’t know what the point of him following me was. My enjoyment of the sun and the lovely warm day was ruined. I was on my guard, wondering how I should leave the green and whether he would keep following me. I texted three friends for advice and ended up speed-walking to Sainsbury’s where I could lose myself in the aisles.

I know that Chiswick is a safe place. Most of the time, I feel safe here. But if something like that can happen here – in daylight, with so many people around – how can we react to Sarah Everard’s story by telling women to change what they do?

My colleague summed it up best in the work group chat the other morning when we awoke and all of London was talking about Sarah.

“They’re telling us not to walk alone after 9.00pm.. how am I ever supposed to get anywhere?!”

There are suggestions that women should walk in groups or make sure to have a man with them when they go out – playing into the idea that our safety is only respected if we ‘belong’ to another man. We shouldn’t need a chaperone to live our lives.

I commend Jay Perry’s Twitter thread for opening up alternative possibilities.
If we are going to confront this scourge of violence against women and vulnerable people, we need everybody’s participation and everybody’s creative solutions.

The conversation needs to reach some conclusions which translate into positive action, not just to dissipate and for us all to go back to normal in a week or so, with us all managing our fear separately and individually.

It’s good to know that there really are some decent blokes out there – engaging in the comments of the Twitter thread, thinking of their own ideas and, hopefully, putting them in practice in their own lives.

Keep sharing those thoughts and behaviours. But above all share the idea amongst men that they need to respect – and actively stand up for- their fellow human beings, not victimise them.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Doorstep vigil for Sarah Everard

See also: Violence out in the open – MP Jess Phillips at the Chiswick Book Festival

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