Ending street harassment is now at the forefront of political agendas. And that is why I’m choosing to share this story today.
Studying for final year exams was tough. I couldn’t focus during the days or nights. Firstly, by nature, I find it difficult to sit in one place without getting distracted, fidgeting, or getting up and doing something. Secondly, at this particular time, we were facing the prospect of being forced to move out of our flat in a few weeks. It was tense.
You could say I was more distracted than normal. At around 9pm I decided get some fresh air and my much-needed my caffeine fix.
I exit the gate and moments later a Mercedes swerves towards the pavement where I’m walking. A man, in his 40’s rolls down the window. I figure he needs directions or maybe I know him, so I move closer towards car.
“Get in the car”
He’s drunk. He doesn’t need directions. And I certainly don’t know him. So I refuse and walk away. He follows. He asks what I’m doing and I ignore. He asks if I’m working. I say “Yes, actually, I’m on my way to work ”. I’m thinking to myself I’m super clever. And this would get him to drive away. But it didn’t, it encouraged him more.
And that’s when I realised. When he meant by working, he meant sex work. There’s a girl on who spends a lot of time on this particular road waiting getting into strangers cars regularly, and leaving her clothes around – almost all the time. You can never really know if she was a prostitute but it seemed that way.
He keeps telling me to get in his car. And starts to get angry. I backtrack my not-so-smart story, tell him I’m not working and to ask him to go away.
He doesn’t so I make a mental note, his clothes, the interior of his car, the colours, the alcohol cans I saw lying in the car, the brands, his solid gold ring on his wedding finger, anything.
I pretend to text but I make notes, and every few moments I subtly turn around, pretend to look at something else, to catch an occasional glimpse of the letters on the number plate, a couple at a time.
I see him lean over and open the passenger car door. It’s the end of the road. I turn the corner on to Caledonian Rd. He slams the door shouting and speeds off around the corner in the other direction.
A man who witnessed this asks.
“Do you know him”
“No, I’m going report it”
“Yeah, but he’s driven away”
And soon enough he was gone too.
I enter the shop and wonder whether to report it, whilst also contemplating if I really should be getting an energy drink. I’m already excessively, reflexive and defensive. I’m annoyed those who saw didn’t seem to care. And even if they do, it’s just brushed off because it’s standard.
This experience is everyday life. It happens at any time, even when you simply head to the shop at the end of your road. Any woman who’s come across “Everyday Sexism” is likely to be able to recount hundreds of her own experiences as she flicks through the pages. I know I did.
Against my better judgement, I buy the energy drink and leave. He’s back. He starts shouting to me again. As I turn the corner he’s driving beside me again. This time a tiny bit further away. Just enough so I can casually get my phone. I ring 101. I speak calmly, as if talking to a friend hoping he doesn’t clock. He probably can’t hear through his own shouting and slurring.
“He’s driving, following me, drunk, angry and erm… I think he thinks I’m a prostitute to be honest.”
I know what exactly what I want. I want him to be accountable for his behaviour. I knew what he was doing was wrong.
I get to my flat and I’m apprehensive whether or not to go in – I don’t really want him to know where I live.
I decide to go in, tell my flatmates and climb out of the window to sit on the roof. By this time it’s dark out. This view of London was beautiful, I think about how I don’t want to be forced out from this flat and how I should probably revise. But before I become immersed in that I see the blue flashing lights below.
They phone and ask me to come out. They ask me to sit in the car. At this point I’m thinking I’d really rather not get in anyone’s car. As we drive looking for him I give them my account and they notify the other car in the area. They say they’re surprised I caught so much information. This time I did. Part of the reason, I don’t report incidents is because I don’t recall any details. On my part, in retrospect, my thinking on other incidents was wrong. Even if I have no details, I should report these incidents.
And I was lucky in this instance that I did. The other police car found him and he was charged. I’m not entirely sure what for, I wish I’d known for certain and if I could, I’d push for him to be charged with harassment.
In the past, when I’ve mentioned this experience to others, the most common questions are: What were you wearing? And, what time was it? I don’t mind questions – anyone can ask me anything – I’m an open person. But what I do observe from these questions, is a suggestion that these factors could determine some rational for the experience. This isn’t right.
And the truth is, even if I were a prostitute, it doesn’t warrant that harassing behaviour in any way. I was wearing converse-like shoes, leggings and a long cardigan. But even if I was wearing something else, anything else, it still wouldn’t warrant that behaviour.
This week the conversation around ending street harassment led to suggestions about women-only carriages. I personally don’t believe women-only carriages on public transport are the way to resolve the issue. My problem isn’t with gender segregation as this is lawful and appropriate in some circumstances, e.g. accommodation. But to have a designated carriage to act as prevention? No. I respect the sentiment but it’s not an answer.
To have a society where women feel safe to go on whatever carriage they like is what we need. And where choice of clothing or time of day doesn’t dictate the likelihood/reactions of facing harassment. A zero-tolerance towards perpetrators is a step towards that society. Stricter policies, procedures and adequate support are all enabling factors. Education too that this is not accepted nor should be tolerated.
The reason I chose to tell this particular story, is because it’s one I reported. Reporting is helpful in recognising there is a problem and getting those responsible for protecting the state to take action. It’s not easy and authorities need to provide support and confidence that such situations will be taken seriously.
In April 2015, London authorities teamed up this and launched the “Report It To Stop It” campaign to encourage people to report unwanted sexual behaviour on public transport. At Liverpool Street station last night, a Community Officer was handing out information cards to commuters during rush hour. It was incredibly positive and reassuring to see this pro-activeness and engagement with an issue that affects many. Mostly, the cards say this
“Nobody should be made to feel uncomfortable on their journey. No incident is too minor – we take every report seriously.”
I’d encourage all of us to get involved with the campaign in anyway we can – through our institutions, workplaces, collaborations, or even little things like getting some cards for those around you – I went back to the officer and asked for a couple more for my flatmates.
And I encourage people to keep making sure that this is kept high on the political agenda and to keep speaking out wherever you may find yourself.
Peace, Love and Zero Tolerance.