An open letter to the events of this week

*trigger warning* themes of emotional distress, discussion violence against women*

My thoughts are not original. My pain is not unique. I am merely another voice, adding to the erupting fray.

I am reeling from a week that began with uplifting women around the world and quickly followed with a chronology of cascading reminders of where we still sit in society: a woman asking for help – mustering up the courage to speak about her personal, lived experiences – for them to be downplayed by others’ opinions (and outshone by a man having an adult tantrum); and another who disappeared along a busy main road on her way home, triggering a warning to those who shared her ‘at risk’ gender, but not those who shared the gender of her attacker.

Sarah – most of those who are now speaking up didn’t know you, but we see ourselves in you: in the fragmented actions of your last-known hours, your trainers, your hood over your head as you called your boyfriend, the well-lit main road you took home, the ‘out of character’ alarm bells that rang when your family realised you’d lost contact.

While there is still much to unfold, whatever the outcome, your story so far represents one told too many times. The worst-case but unsurprising narrative that reminds us to call taxis after dark, to text your friend when you get home, to carry your keys in your hand or rape alarms when we excel our independence on solo-trips or unfamiliar territories. The narrative that we all thought of, however fleetingly, when posters of your face went up outsides our houses last week, hoping that each passing day didn’t confirm what we live in dread of.

I’ve seen the world ‘overstimulated’ used a lot in the past 48 hours. I feel it behind my eyes, still sore from last night’s incessant scrolling of my friends/followee’s/fellow female’s experiences and stories, reverberating in my social media echo chamber. I see it in my parents Whatsapp’s, their worry evident when they realise the road she went missing on is adjacent to mine. I hear it in the aisles at Tesco, muffled pity mixed in with common choruses of ‘awful’, ‘sad’ and ‘unsafe’.

I’m not sure how to label my emotions, to be honest. In a way I feel selfish for consuming some of the anguish in the aftermath. I know that I can’t personally relate to Meghan Markle’s struggle with depression and racism, or the pain that Sarah’s family and friends will be feeling right now; my own upset feels trivial in comparison. But in the insignificance rings a recurrent, relatable truth that us women have all lived at one time or another. Whether it’s someone justifying our emotions as ‘crazy’ or ‘hysterical’, a discreet but calculated placed hand in a public place, a narrow escape from an escalating situation or any of the other stories that the 97% of young women in the UK could tell you.

I sometimes feel like the pandemic’s jarring halt to ‘normality’ has forced us to properly dwell on the world around us, in a way we usually would be too distracted to do. Suddenly the things that passed as ‘business as usual’ seem so much more prominent – not to say that this in anyway is ‘usual’; just that we’ve grown conditioned to it. And, with this unprecedented time on our hands, more and more of us are using the opportunity to formulate our feelings and speak out; to add our voices to the fray. And out of this noise and forced period of stand-still come questions and solutions.

Personally, I don’t like feeling pain without feeling like there is something I can do about it. So here are my two cents on what we can take away:

#NotAllMen are showing up

In the early hours of yesterday – Hour Three into my social media deep dive – I saw that #NotAllMen was trending on Twitter. The visceral feeling I got wasn’t that it was trending; it was that I wasn’t particularly surprised.

Men – I get it. You will never understand, so therefore you’ll never win, right? No one likes to feel they’re in the wrong, especially when there’s no proof or reason to put you there, so I can understand why a lot of men may feel removed from what’s happening right now. The stories that are transpiring from women right now blanket ‘men’ with one brush – so sure, to be a man swept under the general umbrella is bound to feel uncomfortable, especially if you believe you are ‘one of the good ones’. “[But] you have to get involved. Don’t make the same mistake I did for years, which was sitting back and thinking, ‘Well I’m not part of the problem, therefore I must be part of the solution” because that’s not how this f*cking sh*t works. […] when one in ten men are sh*t, and the other nine do nothing, they might as well not f*cking be there” (wise words of Daniel Sloss, discovered in my twilight Twitter session).

The real gut-wrench though that I know myself and my fellow girl friends have felt these past few days is the lack of support from the men they consider closest to. Granted, some men may not even be following the news as closely, or understand why we are now reacting the way we are – to a celebrity’s silencing and a stranger’s disappearance. But our hurt is palpable. I know, for me at least, there’s a lot of support, comfort and strength in a man owning up to his lack of knowledge in order to offer his solidarity. A friend of mine messaged our group chat last night to simply say “Big love to you gals tonight & every night. Can’t begin to imagine how stressful the news is”. It made me want to cry.

So, to the men in my life that know, love and respect me – or the men that don’t know me but know, love and respect another woman – please listen carefully and try to understand: you live in a world that you benefit from. In the hierarchy of society, you come out on top (and when you scrutinise the hierarchy even further, it’s the white, hetero, cis, able-bodied males). You might not realise it, but you hold power in how you can help others benefit in your world too. So step up and show up. We don’t expect you to understand, but you can still support us by trying.

“If you want to use the phrase ‘not all men’, how about we use it like this: not all men are calling out their friends when he says something to a woman he would never say to a guy. Not all men are looking up these phrases, learning what rape culture is, how misogyny really operates. And no, not all men are perpetrators, of course they’re not. But all the ones who aren’t should be solving this with us.”

Gina Martin’s TedTalk: ‘They told me to change me clothes. I changed the law instead

(And if you, a man, feel this is attacking to read and digest: 1) it’s not and 2) good. We navigate a background fear of being attacked – physically – every day. Welcome to our world.)

It’s more than just crossing the street

As the narrative goes viral, there are some men coming forward to find out what they can do to help women feel safer and supported. The act is definitely well-intended, and the discussion it’s since created can only lead to good things. However, is it enough? As I read the suggestions last night – ‘call out situations that look uncomfortable’ / ‘give women space when walking behind them’ / ‘cross the road if it’s just you and a woman walking at night, so she knows you’re not a threat’ – I just didn’t feel these actions did it justice. “As a man, your job isn’t to cross the road to make us feel safer – your job is read and learn and change the culture that makes you cross the street to make us feel safer.” – another Gina Martin quote (big up).

I don’t want to have to donate to a crowd funder to increase the lighting on Clapham Common. I don’t want to have to Ask for Angela if I feel uneasy in a bar. I want to know that one day, if I have a daughter, she can live in a world where I won’t have to ask for her updates on her every move when she’s out of sight. And I’m acutely (and sickeningly) aware that these are only issues representative of a privileged place to live: a ‘first-world’ country that is meant to uphold freedom and progression. My greatest fears of getting home from a night out okay translate to mild concerns in comparison to what oppressions women across the world have to face.

So, is it enough? To me, it delves deeper than just gestures and an attitude change. Hopefully it’s what it starts with this, but it’s the deep-rooted change that we need to follow. It’s about creating the space for women to feel safe, not just for them to be able to walk home, but to have the chance to achieve their potential without the barriers in their way. There is so much positive evidence for what happens when we empower women – too much to share now, but Plan International’s article about How Empowering Girls Benefits Everyone is a good start:

“If a girl has enough to eat, a safe environment free from gender-based violence, an education, and an opportunity to participate in decisions affecting her life and future, she’ll work to raise the standard of living for herself, her family and her entire community!”

Plan International: ‘How Empowering Girls Benefits Everyone’

Systemic, subconscious change needs to happen first; then, surely, the courtesies that are floating around on twitter will automatically follow.

It’s bigger than just (white) women

Something that uncomfortably stuck with me in the week of seeing Sarah’s face plastered on lampposts, park trees, shop and house windows, was how quickly her story rose to national headline news. Of course, that’s not at all to say it shouldn’t – any disappearance of a young woman is immediate and urgent concern. But – and I say this with caution, knowing it’s a complicated thought-process to untangle – would this have happened if she wasn’t a white woman?

Using the metaphor of society being a hierarchal pyramid, each row represents another addition to identity – race, sexuality, disability… Every step down the pyramid adds another injustice, a further layer of oppression. So, in the very real and raw pain that is being felt by women right now, imagine what it’s like to experience that alongside further societal anguishes?

Granted, this opens a bigger, heavier door; however, I believe there’s something more from this situation that we can take away. Ladies, our pain right now is valid, and it is real. We are allowed the time to feel it in whatever way we want. But, remember, this pain is felt by more than just white women; it intersects with other inequalities. So – for particularly white, straight, cis, able-bodied ladies – just as we look to men to offer their hand from the top of the pyramid, we too can examine what power we hold to help someone else. We can use the blueprint of the better world we expect for ourselves to speak for a voice with less power than ours. Our need and want for basic support is reflected in all intersectional injustices. So, store the pain you are feeling now, and channel it into uplifting everyone who experiences oppression.

As I said – my thoughts are not original. My pain is not unique. I am not directly in connection with the events that have unfolded this week. I am merely another voice, adding to the erupting fray. But I hope, in this voice, you might find something you need, be it comfort, validation or understanding. That would make me happy.

If you are a man reading this, and something (no matter how small) has got through, the best thing you can do to show us is to keep the conversation going. The problem isn’t going to be reaching the thoughtful allies, willing to help where they can; it’s going to be the people that aren’t reading this, understanding this, getting ready to play their part. And if this hasn’t resonated with you at all, then you need to start listening.

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