When I was at UWI Cave Hill in the early 2000s my classes used to finish very early on some days, so I would take a ZR home if I didn’t want to hang around campus from 10:00/11:00a.m. until someone collected me around 5:00p.m. I live at the end of a route and many times I would be the last or one of the last people to get off the van.
During the relatively short ride from school to my house I was constantly harassed by conductors and some of the drivers on the vans. What was my name, where exactly did I live and what was my number were all questions I tried to politely decline giving a response to. I was met with, why you can’t give me your number? You frighten for me? Why you so quiet?
The day I decided to stop catching the van to my house was the day that the conductor got out to see which house I was walking to. I kept looking back at him and decided to walk past my house so he was none the wiser. I was terrified. From then on if I couldn’t get a ride home I stayed at school for the rest of the day.
Over the last few hours I’ve read with a heavy heart many of the posts under the hashtag #lifeinleggings and added my two cents detailing some of my experiences with men who just don’t understand or care that we are not simply objects to get off on when you feel like it.
I’ve also seen some counter-arguments from men who say that we women should be more careful with how we carry ourselves, how we dress and how we treat men generally. Let me say this, I am not in any way condoning women who abuse men or deliberately treat them badly. I am also an advocate for self-respect and empowerment of women, which I have tried to pass on in my interactions with young women in my extra-curricular activities. However, I believe that the point of this social media movement to which so many women (and men) in Barbados have decided to lend their voices is to expose the daily struggles of the women whose lives have been shaped around verbal, physical and sexual abuse which they have internalised because it was expected in the society in which we live.
This is about the fact that from the kissing noises made to us on the road, to the multiple molestations that many women have experienced, to the confusion we experience when we “give in” to a man to whom we previously said no, we have decided to uncover the lid of the boiling pot.
I do not accept that how we dress is a catalyst for this behaviour. I and others I know have been verbally assaulted by men of all ages about our intimate parts while wearing clothes that cover, baggy clothes, professional attire, swimwear, Kadooment costumes, dresses, jeans and t-shirts and gym clothes. What are we to do? My sister and I remarked on several occasions that you could wear a paper bag and a man would still find something to say. I have “chucked” a man at a fete for taking the opportunity while I was in a tight space squeezing past him with others to put his hand up my skirt. I have been called at when I was with my mother, father, boyfriend, friends. Some men have.no.boundaries.
I have resisted cursing men or turning around to react in a physical manner because I didn’t want to be harmed and the experience has left me feeling defeated because I couldn’t do anything about it. I either say nothing and then I’m told the worst things about myself or alternatively, while not meeting his eyes I say a swift “thank you” depending on the comment and walk quickly along.
What makes men in our country behave like this? I asked my father, who is in his 70s and is in my opinion, the consummate gentleman, who taught him not to behave like that towards women. He said it was a combination of things, constant drilling from his mother, grand-mother and great-aunts, things he saw in movies, teachers at his primary school in the city and his own common sense.
I think it is a multilayered issue but one of the major back bones is how we are socialised. To some, to be a man is to be as brash and loud. To show that you have as many women as possible who eat out of the palm of your hand. Many men are encouraged from the age of a toddler that they have to be “bold” with women, they have to show they are a man by telling her what they want to do with her sexually or actually go and be physical with her. Many of our parents and family members encourage young boys to say things to little girls and older women which show the family members that they are not “soft” or worse, “gay”. I have seen this myself and it is sick.
The man who stands with his friends and shouts obscenities to a woman is feeling empowered because he is surrounded. His friends will not tell him in the presence of the woman that he is wrong because they may have the same mindset or they do not want to be the one to sound weak in front of “de men”. The man who does the same thing but on his own feels as though he has a right to tell a woman these things because to him she is just another woman who looks good or, he simply does not know how else to do approach her.
These are not excuses but they are the reality of how some men are raised. They are devoid of basic communication skills with the opposite sex. Why is this? Because we allow it. We have to stop it. We have to be bold enough to call out the behaviour. I have done this but I will say that it was only on two occasions and I felt comfortable enough to do it because of the location. Otherwise, I will admit that I keep my mouth shut for my safety. Men need to make an effort to talk to their friends and call them out for their abusive behaviour. And please, it is not about our inability to take compliments because telling me about what you would like to do to my breasts or bottom in graphic detail or taking it a step further by touching me is not flattery. It is abuse.
We need to continue the fight to empower our women to stand up to men who refuse to take no for an answer or to simply share experiences which may help the next woman. Tell our women and girls that their physical body is nothing to be ashamed of but that they need to be vigilant. Teach them what to do if they are attacked, where to report it, where to get help.
For many of us, we expect to be harassed wherever we go. We take it as a given and take extra precautions (holding our car keys so they can be used as a weapon if needed, learning where to punch/kick a man because we are being attacked, pretending to be on a call when we are passing a group of men) because we do not know when a comment will escalate. We try to explain that there is a difference between a man telling you that you look nice in your Kadooment costume versus the man on the side of the road putting his hand on your behind as you pass while behind the ropes in your band.
I know this is just the beginning and we will receive a lot of backlash for telling our stories, although I’ve seen a mountain of support. We need to tell our stories because I have seen the genuine shock from some of the men I know who were unaware that many women have suffered through these indignities, many silently, for their entire lives. I hope that this conversation does not end here and we can make some change by looking inward and outward, speaking up when we see foolishness going on and teaching our sons and daughters that this is not the way.