There are certain words and phrases I hope will have become outdated and died by the time my daughter and step-daughter reach womanhood. Obvious misogyny aside, anything gender specific that defines a woman’s role by her being female instead of just doing what she’s doing… ‘girl boss’, for example, or awards for “best female chef”. I’d also love to see the end of descriptions that are solely feminine (and often undermining): “bossy”, “temptress”, “neurotic”, or the highly loaded “working mum”. However, if there was one phrase that I’d choose above all others to see disappear it’s this: “I was lucky…. nothing really happened…”
Too many times I’ve sat with female friends as we’ve tried to find words for an experience that has an awful and ongoing, skin-creeping power, but in which – to the outside world – it may have looked like ‘nothing much’ happened. And so the power exerted and abused in the moment – maybe the power to threaten, to humiliate, to make the heart beat faster, steps speed up, or the sinking feeling of realisation that you need to walk past him again – now continues as we find ourselves powerless to identify what happened and struggling to name and ‘own’ the experience. After all, when it seems that everyone’s experience is the same – of being hassled, shouted at, groped, stared at, followed etc – it doesn’t feel right to make a ‘big deal’ each time. Besides, after a lifetime of it, it seems sort of normal… and anyway, perhaps we should just be grateful it didn’t escalate? After all, such horrific things happen sometimes, and this was really “nothing much…. Really, I was lucky.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard versions of these conversations over my life, and I can’t tell you how much I wish my daughter and step-daughter will never once believe themselves to be “lucky” if a man verbally, sexually, emotionally or in any other way abuses or harasses them. The horrific and tragic circumstances of Sarah Everard’s abduction and death have led to countless conversations, articles, and blogs like this over the last week. Rightly so – the experiences of women need to be heard, and our streets and all public spaces must be as safe for women as men. Likewise the domestic sphere, where in reality many more women will die or suffer abuses of power at the hands of men. Women’s voices have filled pages and airwaves in sorrow, solidarity and anger – doubtless many reflecting on their own “it was nothing really…” moments, and knowing that all of these were deeply ‘something’ – each representing attitudes to women that need urgent and ongoing action for a safer and fairer world.
Of course, conversations cannot be one-sided, and I wonder how the men in your life have responded to the week of coverage and opportunities for addressing these crucial issues? My father is very pro-feminist/anti-sexist, and I want to share with you part of a letter he sent this week to people he works with in the rural area where he is vicar to a number of churches. It captures the importance of shared conversation around changing our culture:
“A few years ago, I signed up to the movement called First Man Standing. At its root is a challenge to popular notions of masculinity and what it means to be a man in our culture. There is a misplaced and pervasive cultural undercurrent (and over current) that a successful man is one who is assertive, physically strong and who never needs to say sorry because they are always right…. I believe a man’s identity is fully measured by how he treats women. As Desmond Tutu has said ‘It is by standing up for the rights of girls and women that we truly measure up as men.’
A First Man Standing is a man who is willing to be the first in his group to stand up and speak out about gender equality. I will take the opportunity to say to another man, ‘How would you feel if that ‘innocent’ joke was said about your mother, wife, daughter, granddaughter?’ or ‘Isn’t there another more ‘life affirming’ way we could speak?’ Violence against women starts at the earliest age as children pick up the prevailing winds of sexism and injustice. Violence is far more than physical. It starts with attitudes and expresses itself first in our language.
The injustice that has been spotlighted by Sarah Everard’s tragic death is not just a woman’s issue where women are told not to walk the streets. It’s a man’s issue too. It is a human issue and includes us all. From the personal to structural, from the historical to the present, to over there to right here, I’m a part of this.”
If you feel like you’re part of this too, but you don’t identify as a woman, why not head over to www.firstmanstanding.com and consider taking their pledge to never commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women. There’s even a special campaign just for students – so go over and have a look if you want to take a stand.
Of course, at the heart of all these conversations this week is a grieving family and another life lost to gender-based violence. Another woman whose life has been taken in the most terrifying of circumstances. There is deep personal loss for Sarah Everard’s family and friends, and we hold them in our hearts and encircle them in light as they go through the devastation of this time. There is also the inescapable truth that this is just one more death at the hands of an angry man, and there will of course be more.
I long to see a world in 15-20 years where the girls in my family can walk home without any thought to their personal safety. I’d love to know that they never have to carry their keys between their fingers, ask a male friend to walk them home, or get a taxi past a certain time of night. At the moment, the reality is I can imagine this world for my boys… but not for the girls. My son came to me upset yesterday as he’d seen online that all men are to be curfewed at 6pm: “That’s not fair!” he said, “We’ve not done anything wrong!” I explained that a) TikTok is not a reliable news source and b) the ‘curfew’ comment (made by Green Party Peer Jenny Jones) was irony, intended to demonstrate the way in which women are routinely told to ‘not go out alone’ without any outcry about injustice at all. Conversations such as these highlight just how often we accept one way of operating in the world of women and another for men. And the first steps towards this imagined, equally safe world? These conversations. And everyone saying, yes – I am a part of this conversation. Our hearts may be full of sorrow for Sarah Everard and those who mourn her loss, but our voices must be lifted as we raise each other and our stories up.
Safe Spaces: Women’s Voices
Many people may have found conversations in the public realm this week hard, as they may have been triggering of past experiences or memories. Even if you have not been directly triggered, the tone and content of the week’s reporting has been heavy and upsetting.
We would like to invite you to an event on Tuesday 30th March, 7-8pm to gently explore feelings which may have arisen around these topics. Hannah and Selena will offer art-based reflection and mindfulness meditation alongside space to talk together, as we process the themes of the last few weeks.
The event will be nurturing and reflective – but we are not able to offer counselling and will refer you to other places of support if you need specialist help to process hard emotions. This event is designed for anyone who identifies as a woman to gather to share feelings and experiences – therefore, in this instance those identifying as male are not invited to attend. We may run a second event which is more focused on conversations between those identifying and men, women or non-binary – but this is not that event!
Head to the Featured Events section of our Live Page to get registered!