A few years ago I was sitting on a bench and waiting for a friend outside a nice upscale business center. It was a sunny spring day and I browsed my phone casually as he appeared to be late. Not that I was distracted by the phone, oblivious to my surroundings; far from it. We women from the Balkans don’t walk the streets smiling, jamming latest hits and checking out our nail polish without paying attention to what is going on around us. What is going on around you is of utmost importance. The rest is just filling.
Something moves behind me and it is not the smooth breeze finding its way through green branches. It is not something; it is someone; I can feel the heartbeat. On my right. I drop the phone turn around and hit him.
My friend – who happens to be former military – is taken by surprise. I am surprised too. What kind of joke is this, sneaking up behind a woman? He insists he is even more surprised. He just wanted to touch me on the shoulder gently. He thought I wasn't paying attention. What woman would turn around and charge without even checking to see if he was an aggressor or not?
One that would not take any chances.
In order to understand my own behavior, I had to take a trip back in time to southern Romania, where a young woman knows very well that leaving the house equals getting her daily dose of sexual insults and harassment.
Perhaps the most “memorable” experience is the bus ride. If I put the pen down now, many women can pick it up and the finish the story, because they know precisely what I am talking about.
Sure, walking on the street is less stressful, although you will hear cars honking and maybe one or two guys will tell you how “big” they are and ask if you like to “s**k it.” Yet this is bearable compared to the dreaded bus, tramcar or train.
Let me make it clear that we are not talking here about sexy party outfits, rather casual 7 a.m. or 5 p.m. work clothes. Some dress up for work moderately; however, women know that even the most unattractive rags will not save them from the daily routine. Even pushing a stroller or holding your toddler will not prevent men from engaging in what they consider to be “fun casual interactions.” Not wearing makeup is not a solution either. As a matter of fact, even a full body cloak doesn't work because animals pick up female scent.
A closed space is what fun-loving horny men love. A crowded bus is a dream come true, although an empty one will not curb their enthusiasm. But a bus full of people offers opportunities, ya’ll know, closeness. Sometimes men travel in gangs and it is not unusual for a woman to see or should I say feel the body/bodies burning with desire pressing against hers. Then the greedy hands deliver one or more unforgettable “touches.”
Hold on, the amazing part is coming up. If the woman tries to protest, she is called “w***e” and “sl*t” and accused of pushing herself too close to the innocent man who just needs to get home to his children. Depending on how creative the aggressors are, how much time they have on their hands and how much outrage they've sparked in the other travelers, the story can involve an impromptu script played by talented amateurs where the woman is recognized as a cheating wife or girlfriend who has gone missing for many days now. Just in case one of the men standing by has the bad idea to intervene.
Unfortunately, terror works fine and the other people on the bus almost never intervene anyway. For women, there is no difference between the empty and the full bus. Because travelers will always look the other way, pretending not to see or hear anything.
An empty bus has its advantages as the woman can be slapped in a friendly way on her rear as she walks to the door by one or even two seated males – they are usually synchronized – as it is a sign of “manhood” to “discipline da hoe” and show her who is in charge. All this takes place on the background of continuous cheering and name calling, and generous “offers” are extended to the female, “What is wrong with you b**** don’t you have a sense of humor?”
I know, I know, you have a question: “Where is the bus driver?” What’s with him? He is busy driving the bus.
This “touch” along with the offensive language that flows into your system every day are more psychologically damaging to someone’s dignity than a war and a dictatorship altogether. Because people do go to wars and survive hardships but they all end at some point, while these last throughout your entire life, leaving you two options: submission or aggression. There is no effective counseling – counseling for what? Abuse is a lifestyle not a crime.
A few weeks ago I read a recent entry in a young Romanian’s blog. I shivered as it described the scenes mentioned above: the bus, the insults, and the “touch.” Lord, have Mercy! Today’s youth thinks ghetto-ish behavior is a badge of honor -- just like their fathers twenty years ago! Time has passed but nothing has changed.
Until I shared my experiences with women from other corners of the world I thought this was maybe an isolated behavioral pattern. Yet women from India, Haiti, Mexico et cetera came forward and identified the behavior described above with the one displayed by their countrymen. The horrid gang rape in India that left the world’s mouth agape, showed something I had always known: That a boyfriend or a male friend or even two male friends won’t cut it, a woman has to rely solely on herself to survive.
Even decent respectful men have difficulty understanding this perpetual defensive mode-- my friend did, perhaps as a result of his background and experiences – which feels like a constant never-ending drill. You do not have the luxury of enjoying a walk to the office, the sun and the joyous bird chirping because all your energy goes into making mental notes of routes, choosing the safest one, sizing up people, evaluating the “after dark” options and so forth.
Before you rush to tell me that this is happening only in less developed countries please check the statistics for rape in the United States: every 45 seconds someone is sexually assaulted. I remember having many conversations with American ladies during which it wasn't unusual for them to admit they had been raped or assaulted. And it is not only women but children as well. Sure, the settings might be slightly different here than elsewhere, but the fact that most victims are assaulted by someone they know shows that men everywhere feel somewhat entitled to “take what’s theirs.”
As far as I am concerned, “good” men who hide behind “ I've never assaulted a woman” and then limit themselves to passively acknowledge the situation are not less accomplices to this ongoing rape than the cowards on the bus. Yes, it’s called complicity.
I saw the Brigham Young meme “You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation.” passed around on various social networks the other day. People shared it vigorously and added supportive comments.
I found that to be particularly inspiring. I propose a new meme that would probably fit better on today’s agenda for a radical reform on a global scale: “When you ‘touch’ a woman, you ‘touch’ a generation.”
© 2013 by Oana