I have done a fair amount of traveling alone, but one thing I have noticed as I grow older and less tolerant of uncomfortable situations is that I appreciate a Lady around. I am grateful that airline personnel in Pakistan will automatically assign a woman to sit next to you on the plane, or at least get you an empty seat as a buffer between you and a male stranger. I am relieved to see female taxi drivers or other women hanging out in an airport lounge in my vicinity. I see us sneaking quick looks at each other before going back to fiddling with our phones in order to evade having to meet the gaze of the mysterious men who pass by without meeting one’s eyes and inquire of the air, in a shady mumble, “tea-coffee-sandwich?”as if they were offering something of a much more contraband nature. There is a feeling of safety in numbers, even if there is no conversation or contact between the women. On solitary evening walks back home from the tube station, it was comforting to walk behind another woman—I like to think we both felt less nervous about the process of getting home.

Women, simply put, tend to feel safer around other women. This is obviously not to say that no woman ever intimidates other women—everyone has at least one terrifying female in their family, and if you ever took the SAT aptitude test in the early 2000s, the trio of white women who administered the test were up there on the terror scale with lizards and ghosts. This is also, obviously, to say before one hears the familiar plaintive “but” from the gallery, not all men are terrifying to women. But there are enough, and they have ruined it for the rest. Not that there is much of “the rest”, but just to be kind let’s presume there are many genuinely gentle men out there who have never dreamed of violence towards women or ever demonstrated it in gesture or word. This disclaimer done, let us return to the bleak fact of violence that scares women. Nearly all of it is caused by men. As a woman from a class and country where I do not walk the streets alone at night, the prospect of doing so on holiday was no less daunting just because I was ‘abroad’. Many of the women I spoke to who live ‘abroad’ felt the same—that after ten p.m, they would much rather spend some extra money and take a cab home than walk the few minutes between public transport stop and their homes. It says something, one feels, that in a country where the police is efficient and largely seen as trustworthy and prompt, women still feel similarly nervous as someone like me, who comes from a developing country where if you call the police when you’re being harassed, they harass you even more, thereby adding to your problem. When faced with the brief terror of a depraved halfwit yelling at you to get in his car so he can show you a good time, sometimes the prospect of getting endless creepy texts from the policeman you’ll go to for help is a much worse spectre. So you duck into a shop and wait for the halfwit to get bored and drive away and your heart to stop racing, so you can get on with your day.

Feeling frightened, even in familiar spaces, is a depressingly common situation for all women. It is scary because we are, on average, not physically strong enough to fight off an aggressive man. We also cannot trust other men around us to help us either, because by and large most people will pretend not to notice our distress because they don’t think it’s important, or relevant to them. Women won’t intervene because if they are alone, they too will be afraid of putting themselves in harm’s way, even if they really want to help. Women who do try and defend themselves, either by fighting back, screaming or taking to social media with photos and their story are often told to be quiet and sit down, that they must have done something to provoke it or why did they put themselves in that situation anyway? A friend quite memorably has taken to writing rude things in permanent marker on the cars of people who park in front of her house and disappear, leaving her trapped inside, for hours on end. She’s been told she is a bad, vulgar woman, but just as many people have, happily, applauded her because the original rudeness is of the car owner, not her. The onus of being a dingbat is on the person who doesn’t know what an appropriate parking spot looks like, not the person who has to deal with the fallout.

We love to do this to women: blame the victim, and never the perpetrator. Never call out men and their irrationality or cruelty, and be simultaneously amazed when women get angry. Women’s anger is always seen as their own, seemingly born of some inner spite. It is rarely seen as a response to an outside stimulus, which is what anger always is—a response to unfairness or deceitfulness or plain just getting irritated, like a normal person. Women’s anger is not some malevolent gaseous ball they conjure out of thin air and shoot at poor unsuspecting men like the witches they are. If only we had those powers! No, women’s anger happens because you left your shoes in the middle of the room, and we fell over them at night. Women’s anger happens when someone pinches your bum in the bazaar and when you turn around and yell at them, they slap you on the face and nobody helps you. Our anger has nowhere to go, and it turns residually into fear, which is very useful for patriarchies. Fear is what is wielded when you want to travel, or go out to see friends by yourself, or go to a co-ed college. It is convenient for men to be feared, which is why most men are uninterested in ‘safe spaces’, ‘workplace harassment’ and ‘tell rapists not to rape’ kind of conversations. They don’t care, particularly, until it happens to a woman they are related to. Sometimes not even then. So until we women are able to harness the power of malevolent gas-balls, the best thing to do is band together. Actively choose to sit next to women in public spaces. Strike up conversations so they don’t think you’re strange. Help women—hold the elevator door, compliment their earrings, say their toddler has good manners. There is safety in numbers, at least. We don’t need to hold out for a hero—just to each other.

 

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.

m.malikhussain@gmail.com