Today, I got up and opened my laptop. Immediately, I see a barrage of comments and inbox messages calling me a ‘feminazi’ a ‘slut’ and a ‘stupid c****’. My crime? I made a sarcastic post on modesty culture. Did I ‘ask for it’ by publicly flaunting my views? Should I just shut up? It’s 4pm and I’ve already been followed in the street by a man, harassed over my appearance and been pressured into giving my number to a pick up artist.
(I gave him a fake one to make him go away.)
Okay, I live in Islington, not Tehran or Riyadh. I don’t have to wear the veil, I don’t have to register a male guardian, I have the right to prosecute sexual assault and I can legally work in most careers I choose. On the face of it, I should shut the f**** up. It’s something I hear from a lot of guys, including men I respect and admire, all of the time. Other women have it worse, they say. Talk about them. You have it easy.
I do talk about them, I argue back. 90% of my posts are about Islamist regimes, the hijab or FGM.
These western men know this, but that’s not really what they want anyway. They just want me to shut up about my own experiences. Something unsettles and irritates them about discussing how the West isn’t as perfect and feminist-friendly as we’d like it to be.
I was followed down the street for 20 minutes! I’ll say.
“Cover up more and tell him to go away,” they respond.
I was groped by a guy on the train while wearing a full dress, I’ll argue.
“There will always be creeps,” they shrug.
I’ve been sexually harassed since I was 11 years old!
“Maybe you should have gone to the police about it.”
It’s a bit hard to report sexual assault or harassment when most women experience it so regularly. I don’t think I know a girl who hasn’t been made sexually uncomfortable in the last month. Whether it’s lewd comments, catcalling, outrageous advances or sexual insults, women still face discrimination and problems in the West.
I’m not going to shut up about it, however much you’d like me to. I’m not saying that all men are evil when I say we need a cultural change in this country. We still need to understand that women are not eye candy or walking sex opportunities.
Maybe I’m not getting whipped, but that doesn’t make it okay when I’m fourteen and in tears because a boy has sexually assaulted me for a ‘joke’. Maybe I’m not being beaten by my father for not wearing a hijab, but I still had to learn judo at thirteen in case I was raped. Maybe I’m not forced to marry at 14, but I’ve still been groped, touched, held down and forced to do things more times than I can remember. Maybe no one is going to cut off my genitals, but I still live in fear of being killed when a drunk guy gets sexually aggressive with me on a dark night.
Just because my problems aren’t ‘extreme’ enough to matter to you doesn’t mean they aren’t terrifying, cruel and wrong. You can ridicule us for ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘catcalling’ all you want but the fact remains that the vast majority of western, secular women don’t lead perfect, charmed, equal lives. Most women will face sexual assault. Most women will face pressured sex and childhood groping. This is just ‘life’ in this country. It’s our ‘normal’, in the same way that domestic violence is ‘normal’ to many in Algeria or Pakistan.
I’m reminded very strongly of something that happened to me at school. I was in maths, year 9, and I had irritated one of the most callous, misogynist boys in my year. I think I had refused to engage with his sexual taunting over my cup size a few hours before, but I can’t remember.
He waited until he was lined up by the wall next to me in a maths game, and had stuck his hand up my skirt, inside my tights and molested me. I pushed his hand out and moved away, staring at my male teacher in horror, willing him to do something. He looked embarrassed and looked away. I cried that night.
Just schoolboy banter, or sexual assault?
Stop asking us to be quiet and stop ignoring abuse, however minor, which is committed against western secular women. We matter as much as any other woman in the debate. Intersectionality does not mean ignoring problems in the west.