Updated: Jul 14
Being cat-called when you’re in your early teens is an experience every girl goes through.
I was 13, in my school uniform, walking with a friend to her house one early summer afternoon when it first happened to me. A loud, callous jeer followed by a bark of hooligan-like laughter came from the open window of a passing car and we froze, confused.
“Was that to us?” my friend asked.
“There’s no one else on the street” I said.
We fell silent then, consumed by a hot flush of embarrassment.
When we reached her house, we explained what happened to her mother.
“Don’t pay them any attention girls, but maybe change your tights back to blue if you’re walking home, skin-coloured tights look like your legs are bare”.
That evening, I went home and chucked away every pair of skin-coloured tights I owned.
The sense of overwhelming shame I felt following that incident is an experience shared by women everywhere. But it’s a feeling I resent. I resent it because, at its heart, the feeling is a manifestation of the way women have been socially conditioned to believe that they have to adapt in order to prevent unsolicited and unwanted attention.
While the all-too-common responses: ‘ignore it’, ‘that’s just how it is’, ‘maybe don’t wear that’ are of course born out of a desire to protect women and girls, these are in truth, inadequate.
Why? Because they fortify the defective view that a woman must inhibit her social freedoms, her decisions and therefore her path in order to be safe within our society. But it’s not women that need to change – it’s society at large.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
This need for change has been recently crystallised by the horrific murder of Sarah Everard and the concerning number of victim-shaming narratives that followed her disappearance (‘she should have got a cab’, ‘she shouldn’t have been walking at night’, ‘she should not have walked alone’). Narratives like these contribute to and reinforce the latent way females are wrongly policed by deep-rooted social conventions and negative gender stereotypes. The outpouring of anger women have felt, and expressed, following Sarah Everard’s death articulates the silent endemic surrounding the policing of the female body, and highlights the need for a movement that prioritises our individual responsibility to make society a safer space for women and girls, one where they no longer have to censor their decisions, bodies and movements in order to be safe.
So how do we go about this?
Well firstly, we have to keep talking, listening, reading.
Secondly, we need to emphasise that these conversations are in no way a ‘witch-hunt’ against boys and men. Defensive retaliations to the natural expression of fear and concern surrounding female safety within society, such as the #notallmen movement, are deeply troubling as they fundamentally miss the point. But, though the sentiments at the heart of the #notallmen movement can be difficult to stomach, we have to understand that it has sprung from a need to highlight that the vast majority of men are not out there to harm women. Going forward then, we need to recognise how complex an issue this is and make it our priority to support all women without shaming and blaming all men for the actions of so few. So, instead of blindly falling into the futile thinking patterns and ceaseless debates inspired by such movements, we need to start asking ourselves this question: are we all (regardless of our gender and sex) actively challenging incidences of female harassment – verbal and physical?
It’s only once we begin to ask ourselves this kind of question that we can open our eyes to the way some (and by no means all) of our social structures are informed by the type of implicit gender bias that harms women.
While it’s true that many of our societal institutions have (for years) been tirelessly working to fight against the type of harmful discriminatory behaviour that leads to harassment, we need to use our educational settings (schools, universities, apprenticeship programmes and induction to work schemes) as hubs where we can continue to teach ourselves, and those around us, to become more aware of how gender discrimination, micro-aggressions and social conditioning, contribute to the creation of unsafe spaces for women.
More importantly, we need to learn how we can win this battle; how we can all become active bystanders.