I’m walking on a busy street. It’s mid-afternoon, in a great city, in a great country.
What could go wrong?
The weather is nice. The mood is solemn.
What could go wrong?
It’s busy and bustling. There isn’t an inch of concrete where someone isn’t driving or walking. So much life and light around.
What could go wrong?
I’m alone but my mind is occupied. I’m not paranoid, but I’m aware, extremely aware of my surroundings. I know not to let my guard down in an unfamiliar street, especially when I’m alone.
Just when does a street become familiar enough to feel safe?
Alone, on a street covered to its last breath with people. I’m afraid of the same people I hope will also come to my rescue.
I make myself small – just enough to go by unnoticed, but not too small. Too small looks weak, and I’ve been taught that the worst thing you can do as a woman is to make yourself look like a victim.
What does a victim look like?
My senses are heightened because something pulls my attention. Up ahead on the street, there’s a dude hanging out, just walking around in circles. He’s talking to someone on the phone, but his attention is everywhere on the street. He’s looked at me at some point, I know. It’s an instinct that’s become familiar enough to be instantly trusted.
For a brief paranoid second, I contemplate crossing the street and walking on the other side. A ridiculous thought I dismiss immediately – I’d never get anywhere if I kept running away at every instinct of danger. And the dude seems harmless, I tell myself.
If harm had a face, what would it look like?
Couldn’t I just take care of myself? I quickly scan the area for places I could run to, doors I could knock on – there are plenty. I could scream and anyone with an ear will hear me. I mentally make a list of potential “weapons” in my purse. I have a phone that I wouldn’t hesitate smashing to pieces if needed to save my life, a set of keys, perfume, pens, the purse itself. Any one of these could be used as a weapon, I’ve been taught in self-defense. Besides, the dude is talking to someone on the phone.
There’s one person he’s answerable to.
I approach the street, and it instantly feels like I’ve walked into his territory. And then it all happens at the exact same time. He hangs up the phone and makes eye contact with me. I look back at him.
Just enough eye contact to not look scared and vulnerable, but not enough to make him think he’s invited.
He scans me, head to toe, and something in my stomach moves to turn fear into disgust. Next, he smiles, and I force back a dainty smile.
Just enough to avoid sending him flying into a fit of rage, but not enough to make him think he’s invited.
He asks me how I’m doing. I don’t have to answer how I’m doing because I’m walking, and in a split second, walk past him.
I want to look back to see if he’s following me, but that could make him think he’s invited. I keep walking, and the same instinct that had earlier cautioned me now tells me that he’s moved on. I feel temporarily relieved, until it will happen again, maybe a few blocks down the street. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next year.
It will never stop. Nothing I have been, done or said has stopped it from happening. Busy streets and empty parking lots and schools. Catcalling happens everywhere. In different countries, and in entirely different continents. Bone chilling winters when I’m buried in layers, and in summers when I’m wearing a dress. In varying degree of intensity and forms. Physical, verbal and everything in between.
As a teenager, when I could barely look at my oddly shaped reflection in the mirror, it happened. As a woman minding my own business – never looking for unwarranted attention, it still happens.
I will never be able to walk alone without first scanning the street for escape routes. Without a purse full of potential weapons. I will never get dressed in the morning without first thinking of my day and where it’ll take me. To dark alleys, buses, cars, buildings, narrow streets, open spaces? I know it won’t make a difference – what I wear, how much I smile, where I look, what time of day it is or how old I am.
But nothing will stop me from trying. To do whatever it takes to be safe, so I can walk alone.