Women try to keep safe and yet we still blame them when assaulted

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Many women go through great lengths just to keep safe. But no matter how many tactics they use to protect themselves, they're still vulnerable to assault — and worse, get blamed for it. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In an attempt to keep myself safe, I have resigned myself to the fact that nothing can keep me safe.

It sounds like a bleak way to live one’s life, and it is. But make no mistake, I don’t mean for it to be an exaggeration. What I mean is that I always, always brace myself for the worst. What I mean is that minutes after walking into a bar, I have already mapped out in my mind every exit route at any given moment. What it means is that getting into a crowded train requires carving out a space in which my body could at least be steady and still, despite not being safe.

I am not alone in doing this. Countless women like me go through lives of constant tension, seemingly suspended in that all too familiar second before an assault.

It is exhausting, but nobody seems to notice how tired we are.

***

Women navigate the world differently, and the myriad ways we negotiate our presence in public spaces are informed by our experiences. What seems like nothing but a personal decision during a late night commute may very well be a defense mechanism shared by women all over the world, despite the very different contexts we live in.

Because despite our differences, the same entitlement over women and their bodies is shared by a disheartening majority.

One afternoon, Leoti Blaker took a crowded public vehicle, and found herself seated beside a well-dressed man in his 50s. The man’s arm deliberately grazed her lower back that she reached for her hatpin, nearly a foot long, and maneuvered the accessory as she stabbed the man’s arm with all her strength.

This happened in 1903, in a horse-drawn stagecoach. Eight years later, in 1911, the Chicago Tribune ran a series of articles on self-defense. One such article was entitled “How to Defend Yourself with an Umbrella,” where the author said that the change in the attitudes of women, given their “weakness,” is said to “invite aggression.”

More than a hundred years later, hardly anything has changed.

***

When the Angono Municipal Police from Rizal posted an infographic “Paalala Upang Makaiwas Sa Rape,” its suggestions did not sound a day over 1903.

The graphic had well-meaning but useless advice such as “don’t wear short skirts,” or “don’t get drunk” — well-meaning because the advisory is supposed to help women, but useless because it doesn’t tell women anything we don’t already know.

Consider it a blessing if nothing you have ever taken pleasure in has slowly evolved into defense mechanisms, because what used to be small moments of freedom have become moments of fear for most women.

I used to wear scarves simply because they give character to an otherwise plain outfit, but my scarves eventually became a necessity after years of commute and days spent standing inside buses and trains. Standing just an inch short of five feet, I have noticed how men would look down my shirt at the slightest hint of cleavage.

It should not be too much for women to feel good about themselves after spending time planning an outfit or doing their makeup, only to be told they might be raped because they are, in the president’s words, “gwapa” or“maganda.”

Listening to music used to be a much bigger part of my life, affording me a bit of escape during difficult days. Music had always been a relief, but that was only until I noticed how I failed to fully acknowledge my surroundings as my earphones allowed me some solace.

These days I still keep my earphones on, no longer to escape but to pretend. When a stranger calls out to me, saying “hi, miss” with a familiar tone that is far from that of the music I love, I pretend not to hear him. When a stranger approaches me in a coffee shop, I pretend not to hear him. When strangers start talking about my legs or my cleavage, I listen for signs of danger as I walk away, pretending not to hear them.

I notice these things because I need to, in the same way I need to know how to get to the closest exit, how to make space for myself in a crowd, how to be still.

***

Dr. Fiona Vera-Gray, a Leverhume Early Career Fellow from Durham Law School, works on violence against women and girls. Her first book, “Men's Intrusion, Women's Embodiment,” is “the first academic study completed in England focused solely on the experience of men’s stranger intrusions on women in public, commonly termed street harassment.”

Vera-Gray is known to have coined the term “safety work,” referring to “habitual strategies that women develop in response to their experiences in public.” Safety work includes “the range of modifications, adaptations, decisions that women take often habitually in order to maintain a sense of safety in public spaces,” which includes wearing a scarf for a sense of security, or wearing earphones for a semblance of safety.

In a Twitter thread I posted in response to the Angono police’s “reminders,” I asked women to quote a tweet with the kind of safety work they do every day. A friend shared how she would walk on the road instead of the sidewalk along Maginhawa St. in Quezon City, because she would “rather risk being catcalled by drivers or even getting run over than risk being grabbed behind a parked car!” Some shared how they used oversized jackets and wore loose shirts the same way I used the scarves that have become my wardrobe staple.

A number of women took pride in what we collectively call the “resting bitch face,” a default facial expression we wear to discourage strangers from approaching. Some women said they walked differently in public, especially in dark places. They would often walk in a way that most people would probably describe as masculine, to which a male friend replied, “I’ve never heard of men who tried to walk like a woman to feel safe. If anything, walking like a woman makes us vulnerable to threats.”

One reply stood out to me, giving me a strange but familiar feeling. This woman, just a little younger than me, shared how she would stop by a 7-Eleven almost every night, just to buy a bottle of soy milk, her hand wrapped in a tight grip around the bottle’s neck until she finally gets home.

***

The thing about safety work, though, is we never know how many times we have succeeded in keeping ourselves safe. We can only count how many times we have failed — that time when a man cupped my breast in a jeepney, that time when a man pressed his hard-on against my skirt while standing inside a crowded bus, that time when a man jumped in front of me, naked, along one of Makati’s sidestreets.

But these things are not unheard of, and they have happened to more women than you can imagine. In an attempt to keep ourselves safe, we have resigned ourselves to the fact that nothing can keep us safe.

Not even when we are with people whom we trust with our lives.

On Dec. 2014, I went on a surf trip with a friend I’ve known for more than 20 years. We pitched a tent on the designated camping site, walked over to the sea, and spent our first day together after years of not seeing each other in person. She introduced me to her friends, mostly surf instructors, all of them promising to save me if the waves become too harsh for a beginner like myself.

One woman shared how she would stop by a 7-Eleven almost every night, just to buy a bottle of soy milk, her hand wrapped in a tight grip around the bottle’s neck until she finally gets home.

That night we had drinks, and the next morning, I woke up in a surf instructor’s tent with the dread that comes with knowing what had just happened. I remember everything from that night, waking up only to realize that I have failed to notice that one person who was watching me take shots and waiting for me to pass out, but not before walking me over to a tent which I failed to register as his and not the one I shared with my friend.

That night, I believed I was safe, and for the longest time I thought letting myself believe I was safe was a mistake. I believed what happened to be was because of my “mistake.”

But the years have taught me otherwise. I may have failed to do the safety work I have become so used to doing, but I wasn’t the one who did the wrong thing.

The only mistake was the one committed by that man who did the kind of “work” so many other men do in public — even private — spaces. I have seen men’s eyes follow me and a friend as I carried her to the restroom while she was drunk and unstable. I have heard men whisper about my friend’s curves as she walked past them while she was in her usual pants and shirt. I have even encountered men who talk about how a woman’s body might look like after they take off her clothes, the conversation not even the very least discouraged by the hijab she was wearing.

It should not be too much for women like me to feel safe, especially in situations where nobody else seems to feel threatened — except women. It should not be too much for women to feel good about themselves after spending time planning an outfit or doing their makeup, only to be told they might be raped because they are, in the president’s words, “gwapa” or“maganda.”

It should not be too much for women to have fun, drinking included, only to be taken advantage of and be told that it was their fault — not when somebody else made the conscious decision to watch them from the moment they walked into a room, wait for them to be vulnerable, and take advantage of a situation where anybody else in their right mind would have offered help, or could have chosen to do anything else other than harassing, assaulting, or — god forbid — raping them.

Women around the world are tired of doing all the work, only to be blamed for the moments when we allow ourselves to feel safe. The last thing we need is to be told we are not doing enough.