I’m a 26-year-old woman. I have to be conscious not to go out after dark. When I am out late, I’ll call my mother and talk to her as I walk, but I know she’ll be worried that I’m out. She might add an uncomfortable lecture to the chat about why I should be at home. If I see my friends in the evening, as we leave, they’ll inevitably say, “text me when you get home.” I’m annoyed that I have to remember to do this. I wouldn’t say I like that I have to do these things, no matter how little they may seem, and I know I’m not alone. I also know I’m not alone in having to do these things. Amongst so many other small tactics, they’re ingrained in every woman.
“A human rights crisis”
Cases like Sarah’s are not uncommon, but even more common than instances of stranger violence is violence against women perpetrated by someone they know. A UN Women UK survey showed 97% of women aged 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment. This is not limited to the UK; the same report showed nine in ten women globally feel unsafe in public spaces. Sadly, most assaults go unreported: Less than 40% of women who are victims of violence by men seek help, and in the UK, only 4% of women who experienced sexual harassment sought help. Claire Barnett, executive director of UN Women UK, stated, “this is a human rights crisis... it needs addressing now”.
An artil writer shares her story of sexual assault:
“I was really shaken and slightly traumatised when I was around 16 years old, a man touched my intimate area really closely as we crossed our paths in a super narrow street (it was actually where my school was). It was just a second, but I became completely frozen and never told that to anyone and didn't really know how to process what had happened to me. It’s so important to show the rest of the world that this, unfortunately, happens and it's ok to seek help if you need it because of what happened to you, generally.”
The #notallmen hashtag was trending on Twitter in response to Sarah’s murder and recent discussions surrounding it. It intends to reclaim the position that “not all men” are violent against women, and while this statement may technically be true, it is all men that contribute to the problem. Jameela Jamil summed it up perfectly:
“It’s true that #notallmen harm women. But do all men work to make sure their fellow men do not harm women? Do they interrupt troubling language and behaviour in others? Do they have conversations about women’s safety/consent with their sons? Are #allmen interested in our safety?”
The #notallmen hashtag is problematic, perpetuating the idea that men should distance themselves from the issue. It avoids confronting violence against women and turns the narrative towards men when the focus should remain on women’s issues. Discussions of misogyny make men feel uncomfortable, and they want to claim their position as “not part of the problem” before engaging with women on the matter. As uncomfortable as this conversation may make a man feel, it needs to happen because women are uncomfortable, and men should be acting as allies. Even if #notallmen are unsafe, #allwomen feel unsafe.
An artil writer shared her story of discomfort:
“I was sitting in the S-Bahn reading a book. The train was quite empty, but opposite of me sat a man in the mid-30s. After a while, I noticed that one leg of his short pants was drawn up and his erect penis was visible. Clearly, on purpose, that couldn't have happened just like that. I started thinking about what I could say to draw attention to his behaviour but I felt uncomfortable so I saved my words until I got off but then unfortunately also he was gone too quickly.”
What can we do?
There is a vast spectrum of issues here: from stereotypical jokes and microaggressions to unwanted advances, culminating in rape or murder. All of these issues need addressing. The UN explains violence against women as “a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women,” ultimately resulting in discrimination against women. Unfortunately, until gender equality is reached, discrimination and violence against women will remain an issue, but here are some steps we can take now:
1. Call out problematic behaviour. Any discriminatory actions towards women should be interrupted immediately. Even a little seemingly insignificant comment maintains the status quo, and allowing anyone to get away with this reinforces microaggressions towards women. For example, if a man tries to joke about a stereotypical women’s issue, interrupt by saying, “I don’t understand the joke...can you explain why it’s funny?” instead of laughing along with it. This action forces the individual to reconsider the impact of what they’re saying. It also works perfectly to interrupt racism and other forms of discrimination too!
2. Report incidents of harassment. This could involve going to HR for a workplace incident or going to the police for something in public. Unfortunately, we know this is much easier said than done, but if you’re in a position to report, go ahead. It could empower other women to do the same.
In 2019, I was grabbed and assaulted by a man I had never seen before on a Sunday afternoon outside a busy flea market in Berlin. After some initial hesitation, I went to the local police station. Despite providing a complete description of the man, the police did not take any information. Instead, they told me they didn’t want to do anything and call them if I saw him again (as if I would go out and track him down myself). I still reflect on how let down I felt by authorities when I reported this. Still, I believe that the more reports they receive about similar incidents, the more inclined they will be to recognise a problem, act on the reports and ultimately reduce violence against women.
An artil team member shared her similar experience with reporting harassment:
“Running for your life seems like such an antiquated concept and far away from your everyday life until it actually happens to you. I lived in Milan, a wonderful city that is so full of life, love and good food but unfortunately also cemented this horrific experience into my brain. I was on my way home after a fun night with my girlfriends and was lucky to grab the night tram. My stop was just three minutes by foot from my place and I had always felt safe in my neighbourhood and didn’t worry too much about going home by myself. But this evening was different. Immediately after getting off the tram, I had this feeling of something not being right and I quickly glanced around to check my surroundings. Nothing popped up on my radar and I walked a few more meters until I heard footsteps behind me that were getting faster. I turned around and saw a man running my way. Probably instincts or adrenaline kicked in because I don’t remember ever running this fast while searching for my keys in my bag. I was lucky to get to my door, slam the keys in and crush the door into his face. After the first shock wore off, I called the police to report the incident but was quickly shut down by the officers on the phone. They wouldn’t be able to do anything if the man wasn’t there anymore and why I was out so late. Baffled, I hung up and never felt so disappointed and saddened by what just happened. Even now I still think about this night frequently, but not with sadness, but pure rage and anger.”
3. Participate in social media campaigns. The #MeToo movement was pivotal in empowering women to share their experiences with harassment and assault online. The current conversation around the problematic #notallmen hashtag highlights women’s issues and brings them back into the conversation’s forefront. Share this article and others on social media, like the viral Instagram post by Lucy Mountain. Participate in the discussion surrounding them.
4. Join community and grassroots initiatives. All over the world, women are forming organisations to combat violence and help those in need. UN Women UK advocates for public safe spaces to be created, while Terre des Femmes in Berlin raises awareness of women’s rights issues and campaigns. See what you can find in your community, or start your own initiative.
Karla Borg, artil magazine’s founder, also founded Young Feminists of Copenhagen, at only 17. She saw a need in her community for an initiative that wasn’t yet met:
“I started it because I was inspired by the Swedish party Feminist Initiative they are huge in Sweden and there is a youth party division in almost every city. In Denmark, feminism is still very “tainted” and we don’t talk about feminism and gender, either in private or public, in the same way as they do in Sweden and Norway. A lot of Danish high schools and unis have feminist groups, but there didn’t exist an independent organisation for young people identifying as feminists or wanting to exercise some sort of activism for equality/gender issues etc. So I started my own in March 2017.”
5. Download apps and make sure emergency call options are set up on your phone. Apps like Circle of 6 and Life360 allow you to stay digitally connected when you’re in an uncertain situation like walking home alone. The apps provide quick access to share your location or call someone in an emergency.
Don’t hesitate to take all the precautions that make you feel safer, and remember to text your friends when you get home.