Monday, 28 September 2009

women! be afraid!

Women! Be afraid!

An email was sent to everyone at my work today warning women about car jackers and offering self defence techniques.

These included using lifts rather than stairs.
Never offering to help anyone.
Never sitting stationary in your car.

It turned out the email was a hoax and not actually offering police recommended advice, but even before I found that out I was furious.

These emails make me really angry. I had a lot of them last year when the Bristol Groper was going around Bristol. Despite his attacks happening in winter, when it is dark at 3.30pm, these emails told women not to go out alone after dark in order to keep safe.

These emails use terror tactics. They frighten, they scare, they point out where women are vulnerable. They use emotive and scary language to suggest women’s vulnerability and make women feel unsafe in places they may have previously felt safe, i.e. their car.

We all know that women get attacked on the streets by strangers. But we also know that men are more likely to be attacked on the streets by strangers than women are. I haven’t got the stats to hand, but 16-24 year old men are the most vulnerable people on the streets. A couple of weeks ago in Bristol there was a tragic stabbing of a young man by a bunch of other young men. Yet, no work place was inundated with emails telling young men to not walk alone in the dark. No police warnings go out telling young men to always be sure to stay in well lit areas.

Men are vulnerable. Yet we do not train men to be afraid. We train women to be afraid.

Although I believe strongly that men and women need to be street wise and self aware when in public spaces, I don’t think that telling women to be afraid is at all constructive. Yet we tell women to be afraid on the streets all the time. And it works. Women are afraid. We’re afraid of the dark, we’re afraid of the man on the street, the man on the train, the man on the bus. We are brought up in an atmosphere of fear. We are given rape alarms that don’t work. We keep to busy streets and don’t walk home alone. We spend money on cabs and then are told not to take cabs alone in case the cab driver is a rapist. Then, if the worst happens and we are raped, we’re not believed.

What concerns me further to this is the way women who are attacked are judged. If a woman is raped by a stranger in the night on the street, we ask why was the woman on the street alone at night? Why was she not obeying the “rules”? What was she wearing? Was she drunk? Now, I am not saying that women or men should take unnecessary risks and put themselves in dangerous situations, but I think we can all appreciate that women have a right to inhabit the streets and shouldn’t be made to feel afraid of walking along the streets, and certainly shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for having done so.

I also think it distracts from the greater issue of violence against women. 1 in 4 women will be a victim of domestic and/or sexual violence in their lifetimes. Most of these women will be attacked by someone they know. So avoiding stairwells and making sure you walk in well lit areas isn’t always going to help.

These scare tactics, these terror emails are not helping women. They are teaching them to be afraid, they are reinforcing cultural myths about rape and they are assuming that women should be the ones to stop rape. That it is a woman’s responsibility to prevent rape. It takes the onus off the attackers and on to the victim.

The first Reclaim the Night marches were born out of an anger that women were subjected to a curfew when the Yorkshire Ripper was raping and killing.

Today we still march on Reclaim the Nights because women are still metaphorically placed under a curfew when their freedoms are curtailed out of a fear of rape and violence.

When an email goes around telling women how to behave in case she gets raped, we need to be asking why an email isn’t being sent round asking why men are still getting away with rape and what can the government, communities and police do about it.

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