Women must be able to reclaim the streets – not just to walk but to wander and explore. Until we can walk without fear, we have very little freedom at all
There were two routes home from the city to my flat, and I chose the way with the underpass. I descended the concrete ramp below the railway, keys in knuckles, heart in mouth, ears pricked up for a clue about who was below. At the sound of a crackling radio, I breathed out. Toto, the guardian of the underpass, was home.
Salvatore – Toto – was the unofficial gatekeeper to my neighbourhood. He sat, or danced, or played his harmonica at the junction of the graffitied maze that linked the town centre to the suburban area where I lived. He mopped the floor when rainwater puddled, and sang greetings to passers-by. He lived, sometimes, in a storage room under the tracks – a person on the edge of society, but also at its heart. The community protected him from eviction because, so long as he stayed, the underpass felt a safe passage. Because the man who ruled it was benign.
Sarah Everard’s killing reminds us that women rely on the men we meet to be benign. Because if they aren’t, and if they decide to hurt us in our homes or in the street, chances are we would struggle to stop them. It reminds us that almost every woman has been harassed, but can never know whether the next incident will be forgettable, life-changing or life-ending. It reminds us that a woman can take every precaution, and may still be abducted, murdered and buried in a forest. And some people will blame her for it.
The blame is rooted in the prejudice that a woman out at night is subversive, even dangerous. As if, by the setting of the sun, a woman in the street becomes somehow threatening. As the acclaimed essayist Rebecca Solnit notes in Wanderlust (2000), women’s walking is often falsely seen as a performance, intended for male attention rather than the woman’s own experience. This misconception leads men, Solnit notes, to believe women “are asking for whatever attention they receive.”
Institutions of the state, as well as individuals, deploy the same logic to justify their actions. On Sunday morning, after restraining and arresting women at a Clapham Common vigil to remember Sarah Everard the night before, the Metropolitan police issued a statement: “We absolutely did not want to be in a position where enforcement action was necessary. But we were placed in this position because of the overriding need to protect people’s safety.” In short, the women at that vigil were asking for it.
We are in the middle of a pandemic but in times of extreme collective stress, we need each other. Emotions like fear, sadness, grief, disgust and rage are not the antithesis of reason – at moments like these they are the expression of it. To share those emotions is not unreasonable, it is essential.
What were women attending the Clapham Common vigil truly asking for? To lay flowers, light candles and grieve. Maybe to scream into the night at the injustice of a life taken, a future lost. Likely to find solace in knowing that others, too, felt as they did.
Countless exhausted women have, in the past week, reminded men that “no, not all men harass women but all women have been harassed by men”. Of course – women experience violence and harassment in different ways to one another, too. Sexual harassment is often racist and racist abuse is often misogynistic. Black people have rightly been complaining about harassment and police violence for years, and collectively we have not done enough to end it.
The #ReclaimTheseStreets campaign symbolises a reckoning: the latest knot in the same thread that goes back forever, through generations of violence from men towards women. In the 1970s, women made the same demand to Reclaim the Night, but to no avail. In 2017, with #MeToo, women threw open the doors to private spaces and exposed the coercion, harassment and violence they received from men within. But since then, no legislation has been passed to prevent harassment in the workplace. The number of domestic abuse incidents – mostly by men against women – is increasing.
In 2021, women still hide themselves – at home after dark and under voluminous clothes in the street – for fear of what happens if a man sees them. Women are still fighting for the freedom to transport themselves safely from one place to another, on foot. To do so should not require great courage or strength.
When women walk alone through the streets of our cities, what are they really asking for? They are not asking to be ogled, harassed, kidnapped, raped or murdered. They are asking to survive. To get home, safe. To put one foot in front of the other, unchallenged, unquestioned, unharmed. That is not enough.
What does a woman dream of, when she walks through the streets? Of the freedom not just to walk but to wander. To saunter, meander – hell, skip. To explore. To lose herself and find herself in the streets where she lives. Or where she imagines, one day, she might.
This is not, or should not be, a utopian dream. But it is a collective longing that requires all of us to take women’s safety seriously. Society must not accept women’s fears or the violence of some men as inevitable. Institutions – the police, courts, schools, universities – must give women’s complaints more respect. Individuals – fathers, brothers, colleagues, friends – must challenge sexism when they see or hear it, not only in the proverbial testosterone-filled locker room but in their living rooms, offices, with their friends. All of us must bring up boys better, so they don’t turn to violence. Men must stop harming women, which means that they must be told, explicitly, from a very early age, not to do so.
On Saturday, we stood on our doorsteps – the boundary between the public sphere where we are likely to be harassed and the private sphere where we are more likely to be murdered – and we lit candles to remember Sarah Everard. On Sunday, crowds gathered outside New Scotland Yard to demand the police better protect women, and to share their own traumas. One day soon, women will march together en masse to repeat again that “enough is enough”. That these cities, these towns, every alley and way is ours, too. That we will not be free until we are safe to stand alone in a darkened street without fear, and shout to the rooftops, “I AM HERE!”