Over the past weeks women have been speaking about a fear they’ve been experiencing for most of their life. You might tell me, more of this? We’re sick of hearing the same thing over and over again. Perhaps I should have posted this a couple of weeks ago, but perhaps not, because we shouldn’t let the subject matter die until we finally start noticing a change… a shift in mentality and attitude.
I contemplated writing a post about certain experiences as a woman in time for women’s day, but the truth is that there are so many issues that we deal with on a day to day basis, that I couldn’t decide what to write about. Then just a couple of days later we heard of yet another woman going missing, and when eventually the full details about Sarah Everard’s most tragic murder came out, (for those whom are lost, please read up about Sarah Everand and come back) I was filled with so many emotions that I wasn’t even sure how to express myself. I kept reading posts from different women, which made me reflect on ‘incidents’ that I myself have experienced. Incidents that would have bothered me at the time but I had brushed off right after, because society taught me from an incredibly young age that I should accept the occurrence as the norm. I was the one that had to be careful, I was the one that had to be respectful, and I was the one that had to say sorry. Why? Because I’m a girl!
I started thinking of memories of when this oppression started becoming the norm. Back to when I was four years old, attending an all girls Catholic Church school. Our uniform only had a skirt option, and so we were taught how to sit “appropriately”. No crossed legs, no open legs, because someone might see our panties *gasp*. A few years later, reaching our teenage years, we had to start wearing a bra because god forbid someone would see a boob developing. And of course, during our menstrual cycle, we had to hide our sanitary wear whilst going to the loo, because it’s taboo to show that our bodies are changing and developing as is natural. Then there was the length of the skirt that we were forced to wear. So we have to show our legs by wearing a skirt that’s just an inch above the knee, but any shorter is an utter scandal because it’s “provoking”.
But whilst my friends and I were being taught how to behave as girls, to be polite, respectful, say sorry, take responsibility for our actions, not provoke, be soft spoken and the likes, our male counterparts were simply being taught by society’s standards that it’s okay to look at a girl and objectify her. It’s okay to whistle at her. It’s okay to ask your boys to get closer to her, whilst passing comments of what each and every one of you wanted to do to her. It’s even okay to ignore her personal space and touch her, whether she likes it or not. Worst still if they see a girl getting uncomfortable or scared, they turn around and pass a comment on the lines of, “Don’t worry baby girl. Papa is here.” *queue smirks and giggles*§.
When I was about 14, I used to walk to the dance school I used to attend, about a 15 minute walk from my house. I used to have so many layers of clothing on that there is absolutely no way that I could have been “provocative” (as society might put it) in any way. This walk used to take place in the afternoon, in broad daylight and yet I would be on constant alert, avoiding any possibility of eye contact with any male in the street or in a car, secretly panicking on the inside if I see a man walking towards or close to me, and always avoiding taking a potentially easier route, simply because the main road was busier. Even as a 14 year old covered from head to toe in multiple layers, I would get catcalled almost every time I walked to the dance school.
A couple years later I started clubbing. Malta is known for its clubbing scene and practically has a whole village full of clubs, one next to the other. Back in my day, the legal entry age for clubs and drinking was 16, so we were super young. At that age of course the skirts were short and tops were ‘sexy’, but I would barely find enough courage to approach a guy I liked and speak to him, let alone try to attract random strangers. Being that I’ve been dancing for most of my life, I could not hear a tune and keep my feet still. Of course random men would see this as an open invitation to come up from behind and rub themselves against me because “they wanted to dance with me”. At 16, I’d put a ring on my ring finger, to pretend that I was engaged, if a guy came on too strong and would not back off because my “no” didn’t mean anything to him. I wouldn’t have thought twice about it back then, but of course they’d respect the idea of a girl already being ‘taken’ by another guy, more than a girl’s rejection simply because she wasn’t interested!
Aged 18, I started going out more, especially in summer. I didn’t live too far from this clubbing village (Paceville) – about a half hour walk, so at times I used to walk back home, alone at 1.00 a.m… Looking back now I think it was the craziest, stupidest thing I ever did, and count my blessings for never being attacked. I would keep a tight grip on my phone all the way, the emergency number already dialed in, just in case. I’d also be holding my house key ready to open the door as soon as I arrive. I’d avoid the dark, unlit areas of the street, cross the road to what looked like the safer pavement, and pray. Along the way there was one place that was always open, a pigeon club of all things, but instead of finding solace in the fact that I could call for help, I used to be terrified of approaching this building because it would be full of men.
When it came to performances and quick changes, we (as girls) would be uncomfortable in our changing room, particularly during quick changes, in fear that men were peeping through to get a free show when we were at our most vulnerable, as we didn’t have time to be careful or hide our bodies. We were fully aware that they actually did this. At times when performing in particular venues that didn’t have proper changing rooms, we’d end up having to change in corridors, and we’d notice the food & beverage staff slowing their pace to gawk at us, whilst we were trying to do our job just like they were… and we just had to accept that ‘it’s okay’, because there’s no changing men.
There was a time when I found a guy, that back then I barely knew, outside my house as I was arriving home after a night out, and that scared the hell out of me. The reality of the situation was that he cared, and he actually followed me home to make sure that I was safe. But the simple thought of what happens next was absolutely horrifying. He on the other hand never imagined why I could possibly be so frightened.
I can’t not mention the idea of ‘hooking up’ with a guy on a night out. As a teenage girl, to me that would mean dancing with and maybe kissing a guy I potentially liked, seldom would it be a guy I just met. How many of us have experienced that guy suddenly expecting more and saying that we’ve been tempting them all night, but we’re leaving them hanging? They might even go on about how they “have needs”. Well here’s a reality check: women too have ‘needs’, but we don’t go around forcing people to ‘satisfy’ those ‘needs’ for us!
Situations at work are not easier at times, because it seems that for a woman to be professional she needs to ignore comments that are passed regarding her and ‘accept’ them, or at least deal with them. ‘Oooh that dress is sexy, are you trying to impress the boss / a new client?’ How many of us have tried to share ideas and impress people with our intellect only to be told what the male counterpart would rather be talking about in that particular moment? What about moments of unwelcome physical contact by male colleagues? But how many of us actually ever found the courage to report such behavior as sexual harassment? Most of the time we’d probably just downplay the gravity of the situation and say, ‘but he didn’t force himself on to me’ or ‘I stood up for myself and handled him. He won’t do it again.’ Then approached, the male counterpart would probably downplay the situation by saying that he’d been joking, so we let it slide, especially if he apologises and says that he won’t do it again. Perhaps he won’t do it again to you because you were strong enough to speak up. But what if the next girl is scared to speak up? What happens then?
Recently on local television we experienced two ‘creative projects’ that needed more consideration from the organisers. The first was a milk advert by the national milk company, that is advertising a new red velvet flavor as ‘temptation’. In the advert a man takes a sip of the milk and suddenly starts fantasizing about a female colleague. Several ‘feminists’ made a furor about the sexualisation in this advert. Just a couple days later however, we had a massive music festival on national television. The festival was wonderful, and I say hats off to the organizers, for all but one part. On the final night the festival had a ‘special guest’ who was this “Ali Bubaker’ character – a fictional character from a supposed Middle Eastern country. The character within itself is just wrong and should never have been allowed on national television, during a national festival no less. If ever there was talk of culture appropriation, this was the personification of it. To add insult to injury however, this character passed on incredibly sexist comments to not one but three female presenters (all with incredibly strong characters and who are regarded as an inspiration to other women). This happened in the same week that women all over the world had been talking about harassment following Sarah Everard’s murder. If the festival wanted to allow this sketch, they had the perfect opportunity to shine light on the gravity of this situation. Instead, all we got was the only male presenter in the festival saying time and again that these comments were inappropriate for national television. But none of the women stood up to defend herself. They all looked to be incredibly uncomfortable, yet not one took action. And funnily enough whilst people felt like they had to take to social media to comment on the milk advert, it seems like they didn’t feel the need to comment about this.
I am in no way dissing the presenters for their reactions to the sketch. I truly have great respect and admiration for every single one of them. But truth be told, this was a perfect example of how, no matter how strong a feminist we are in our hearts, when faced with such a situation, we find it incredibly difficult to defend ourselves. Truth be told, I would have probably reacted in a similar manner, were I in the situation.
So how can we change this?
It’s not as simple as saying that we need to stand up for ourselves. We’ve been brought up to accept this as the norm, or to downplay the gravity, probably because the truth is too difficult to accept. We need to start identifying when a man is compromising our womanhood, realise how serious that is, and tell said man that ‘it is NOT okay!’
Furthermore, women need to stop blaming other women! I cannot emphasize this enough! We keep saying that it’s all men’s fault, but we don’t realise how many times us women say, ‘she asked for it’, ‘but did you see what she was wearing’, ‘she’s such a slut’, and only god knows what else.
If a female friend opens up about a situation that made her feel uncomfortable, offer your support. Offer to walk with her if she needs to pass by that man again, but more importantly, encourage her to stand up for herself – to confront the person who made her feel that way, but also to report a harassment incident.
The authorities, police officers in particular, need to be trained on how to deal with situations of harassment and abuse reports. We cannot have women terrified of trying to report an incident to authorities. But worse still, we cannot have authoritative figures ridicule a woman who seeks help!
Gentlemen, you need to step it up! We need your help in this fight. It is simply not enough anymore, to feel bad if a friend passes a comment. Stop thinking that other guys are going to ridicule you, and start standing up to them and fighting against what you feel is utterly wrong!
Most importantly of all EDUCATE! Not how girls should sit properly, but how boys should respect girls and treat them as their equal. We need to change the mentality of what and how we educate our children, boys and girls alike. Boys and girls need to be taught the importance of consent, and that certain behavior is completely unacceptable. And I don’t want to say this because we SHOULDN’T need this, but self defense classes in school for all teenage girls might also help, as at least they might have the courage to defend themselves.
The change starts with us. Every little contribution will make a difference to the general community mindset. So please, start today and do your part.