When I saw the alarming report by UN Women UK that 97 percent of women in this country aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed, like many people I thought, "That couldn't be true? That's basically everyone. I've never been sexually harassed." It wasn't until a few hours later that I reminded myself of the experiences I have successfully repressed.
Selective memory is key to survival. I have become so talented at suppressing my own experiences of sexual harassment that at first, I didn't even recognise myself in the 80 percent of all women in the UK who have been sexually harassed. After seeing the report by UN Women UK, I didn't immediately recall one of my formative memories of my mum and I going for a walk to the shopping centre. I was around 10 years old when a young boy around a similar age — maybe two or three years older — ran up to me and grabbed what was not even a fully developed breast at that age. I was in public, he ran off quickly. I felt violated, and embarrassed. Thanks to my mother — she ran the kid down and threw a bucket of water over his head. But even with her showing me to stick up for myself, I quickly understood that if I was with my father the experience may not have happened at all.
"If we want to stop this sickness of violence towards women, it means we must encourage these conversations between men. It's crucial that we educate our boys, and hope that the women who have internalised their own oppression will start choosing love for themselves."
I grew up in a country where as a woman, you need to be chaperoned in public so men know not to harass you. Even at 25, I begged my 15-year-old brother to walk me to the grocery store that was only 10 minutes away, out of fear that I looked "kidnappable." He thought I was overreacting, but I told him that if I was seen walking by myself, I would be a target. He walked me to the shop, and on our way back, he left me about half of the way from home, and went in another direction towards his high school. I pleaded with him not to leave me, but he assured me that it was the middle of the day and I would be fine. "Relax, Ki," he said. Minutes after I turned the corner, a massive Rover with tinted windows drove up right beside me. A man in a suit, who appeared to be driving while on a phone call, slowed his speed to the pace of my walking. I ignored him and began walking more quickly, but not too quickly, as not to seem afraid. "Where you going? Let me give you a ride home." "No, thank you," I said politely, while thinking, "It's none of your f*cking business." Once I made it home safely, I was reminded of my feelings as a child.
While cultures and countries have different levels of threat for women's safety, there is one experience that is seemingly universal — walking alone at night when a strange man tries to speaks to you, and wants to let you know that you are the one who is being rude for ignoring him and prioritising your safety. We have all tried to be polite to the male ego so that we don't end up dead. As Margaret Atwood put it, "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them." We all know the terror of walking home alone at night, the feelings of Sarah Everard in the moments before she was abducted from South London's well-lit streets, who was found murdered in Kent a few days later. We are all the 97 percent of young women who have been sexually harassed. And for Black and mixed-race women, many of us share similar experiences with Meghan Markle of racism and gaslighting.
This week has been traumatising for womxn in the UK and globally. This Women's History Month, on the week of International Women's Day, many of us are realising that our safety is under threat. Many of us are becoming aware that not all men interrupt the misogynistic language and troubling behaviour of their mates. We have experienced fellow women blaming a victim for what she was wearing, or that she was listening to music while walking alone. If we want to stop this sickness of violence towards women, it means we must encourage these conversations between men. It's crucial that we educate our boys, and hope that the women who have internalised their own oppression will start choosing love for themselves.