You Go, Girls

I have bought the tiniest pair of patterned Ali Baba trousers from a stall in Dahab to take to a one-year-old girl’s birthday party today. I’ve been looking at them every time I visit, wishing I had someone to buy a pair for, and finally that moment has arrived.

I met the baby’s mother – a Norwegian woman who is married to an Egyptian – when I was walking into town to meet friends one evening and she asked me to walk with her. Another man had been hassling her (despite her being married with a baby) and she wanted me to talk to her as we walked past him. Turns out she was really nice and we met again for coffee a few days later.

We agreed that there is an unspoken alliance between women when it comes to hassle from men – I understood what she needed immediately and it was no problem. We’ve all been in that situation, in any country. This happened on the day that I’d had to deal with hassle from a British man here in Dahab so I was feeling ultra-protective of myself and women in general.

The day after this happened, a young Egyptian woman who works at my hotel asked me to go to the doctor with her. She’s twenty-three and she has come to Dahab on her own, which I gather is a very rare thing to do in Egypt. Women here are policed by family and strangers in a way that is horrifying to me. A few days earlier she’d been made to go to a police station where they called her parents to make sure they knew where she was. A friend of hers had overhead one of the police officers refer to her as a ‘whore’, simply because she was alone, and unveiled, it seems.

Anyway, she was afraid of going to a male doctor alone, so I was her chaperone. She only needed her ears syringing, but I was glad I could offer comfort, having had it done a few times myself. Earlier, my young friend had told me about her ambitions to be a journalist, but that her intelligence is seen as a threat. There is so much fire in her eyes – I told her to stay strong and to keep doing what’s she’s doing. I will do what I can to help.

On my last visit to Dahab I went on a ladies-only boat trip to Ras Abu Galum and had a wonderful time. The women were a mixed group – some Egyptian, some European, most married to Egyptian or Middle-Eastern guys. They told me about Dahab’s ‘woman problem’, which turned out to be feminism. Yes, it’s right here: women doing things that men don’t like. Having heard male friends comment that a woman shouldn’t be smoking shisha in her hijab because it’s ‘disrespectful’, I’ve seen it here for myself. I look at those women admiringly, and think, ‘you go, girl’.

On that boat trip, we were given lunch by a Bedouin woman and her daughter and I asked about the numbers of Bedouin girls running about in Dahab selling bracelets. Isn’t it dangerous? Apparently not. It’s only when they hit puberty that they are taken indoors and covered. I’ve been told that some mothers are hiding the onset of puberty in their daughters from the male members of their family to preserve their freedoms for a precious while longer. Again, ‘you go, girls’…

When I first came to Dahab I couldn’t see any local women in public and assumed they were all being kept indoors. I think it was just the time of day that I’d arrived in town, because now I see them everywhere, particularly at night, when families come out for tea and cake. There are lots of young girls doing the ‘hijab and skinny jeans’ thing I’ve seen in the Middle East, and then a few who are completely covered. The best thing I saw on my last trip was a large group of the former on quad bikes, heading towards the mountains one evening. You go, girls!

I think Europeans like myself come here with a lot of preconceptions about the lives of local women which can only be challenged or vindicated by meeting them and hearing what they have to say for themselves. I’m constantly told by local men that the women are ‘free’, and that may be true in comparison to their Saudi neighbours, but the level of policing of behaviour here tells me the real story. The women *can* do what they like to a certain extent, but they may be called names by anyone for doing it.

On my first visit to Dahab I was invited into the house of a Bedouin woman who’d just had a baby. I was told that hers was a love marriage – she in her twenties, he in his forties – but they had encountered problems conceiving. Then along came Aida, the miracle baby. I was led into the woman’s bedroom, where every single female member of the family was gathered. It was like an all-girl nativity scene, with Aida as the centre of attention. She had a shock of black hair and was sleeping, swaddled in cloth. I was offered Helba tea, made from fenugreek seeds, which is a popular Egyptian health drink. We sat round, me only able to communicate in appropriate cooing sounds, looking admiringly at the baby and the sublimely happy mother.

I was invited to the feast to celebrate the seventh day of the baby’s arrival, at which they would slaughter a goat. As the person I’d gone with was vegetarian we politely declined, but the hotel guys told me I was really missing out. When the Bedouin party, they really party. I wasn’t brave enough to go on my own, and I didn’t know anyone else in Dahab back then.

So today I will go to the birthday party – one that doesn’t involve goat sacrifice – and celebrate all the women I’ve met in Dahab and how many I now count as my friends.

You go, girls.

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Indecent Exposure **content warning**

Two days ago I decided to take advantage of the warm, autumnal sunshine and take a walk along the Thames Path – the towpath that winds along the banks of the Thames river in London. I chose the south side, starting at Kew Bridge and ending at Hampton Court – a route that would be around 10 miles in length, through beautiful riverside leafiness.

It felt so good to stride out along the well-worn path, complete with dappled sunshine and smiling walkers, runners and cyclists. I came across Ham House, a 17th-century mansion owned by the National Trust, that was offering free access as part of the Open House London weekend – I decided to take a little detour and found the house and grounds enchanting. I tweeted, I Instagrammed, I Periscoped. All good.

Then about half a mile on from Ham House I became aware that I was being followed very closely behind by another walker. I didn’t look round but I knew it was a guy. After a few minutes, at 3.30pm precisely, I tweeted as I walked: “To the man walking RIGHT BEHIND ME on the Thames Path – ever thought that might be intimidating?” I figured he probably hadn’t realised so faked a photo stop on the side of the river next to a woman who was sketching. I watched him walk on – seemed like a normal guy out for a walk – and after a few minutes I carried on.

Then suddenly, there he was, flaccid cock waving in his hands, grinning at me from a spot just off the path in the woods. “Oh you f*cking dickhead,” I muttered and carried on walking, but as two guys – a father and son – cycled past me I asked them to stop. My legs had gone wobbly and I asked them to walk with me for a bit, which they did. The father was suitably horrified – not least I suppose, that this was happening in front of his son who looked about 11 – and said I should call the police immediately. “Really?” I said. I’d fully intended to carry on walking and ‘not make a fuss’ but he was insistent. “I think you should, in case this guy does it again to another woman.” He was absolutely right.

I’m still amazed at the speed and seriousness of the police response. Within fifteen minutes they were with me, further down the track, and taking a statement. They then went on to walk back along the path, using my description to track the offender. They’d offered to take me home, or at least to a station, but I was absolutely determined to carry on. I wasn’t going to let one dickhead stop me from walking freely on a public footpath.

PCs Whitaker and Lau walking ahead of me after the second call-out. Thames Path.

PCs Whitaker and Lau walking ahead of me after the second call-out. Thames Path.

About half an hour later, I saw him again. He was way up ahead, and he’d turned round to carefully check out the lone woman passing him on the path going the other way. I readied myself to join her but he turned back again, leaving her be. I called the police again and they came out immediately. Not only that, but the call-centre officer insisted I stayed on the line while I waited for them, and said that I should call the police if I EVER felt threatened by a man walking too close to me, or whatever. Blimey, I thought. If I do that, I’ll be on the phone every week…

Then came the response to the incident on my social-media feeds. One young woman talked about how being flashed at by a local offender was a ‘rite of passage’ at her school and how the girls were told to tell him to ‘put it away’ and look disdainful. Another had seen a man peeing on a beach that morning, clearly after public attention, but unlike me, it hadn’t even warranted a Facebook mention.

So many women commented that it had happened to them at least once, but it was clear that we’d all been trained not to make a fuss. I am horrified that it took a man to insist I call the police on this occasion, but I’m afraid to say my initial response was to just walk on and process it, after sharing on social media, of course.

I suppose my amazement at the police reaction was as a result of being brought up on the traditional ‘Cagney and Lacey’ response to flashers. Remember that bit in the opening credits where a guy opens up his mac and Cagney just looks so ‘is that it?’ about it? That image flashed into my head on the day, and I think it sets the scene for our cultural response to a man getting his dick out in front of us. Treat it as a joke and move on, because there are bigger issues to deal with. Typically, an old lady I spoke to as the police were scoping out the area simply said, “he was obviously born with a small one.”

Cagney & Lacey opening credits - the 'flasher'

Cagney & Lacey opening credits – the ‘flasher’

I later found out that another incident had happened in the same area, half an hour before mine, involving two girls of twelve and thirteen. The guy had followed them, too, and then revealed himself. Goodness knows how many times he’d done it that day, but I’m willing to bet that only a minority of them were reported. There is some evidence that shows these relatively ‘minor’ offences can lead to greater ‘contact’ ones, when the thrill of the shock and disgust (that’s what arouses them) needs a bigger event to trigger it. We need make sure these offenders are reported and subsequently caught, because like many seemingly ‘harmless’ events, they can often build into something bigger.

People often ask me why I complain so much about wolf-whistling or Page Three – it’s because both can sometimes lead to something so much worse, whether it’s a torrent of abuse if you don’t accept the ‘compliment’ with a smile, or a rapist whispering the name of their favourite tabloid into your ear. All of these things are set on a continuum and the more we let the ‘small’ things slide, the more likely the ‘big’ things are going to happen.

The way the police dealt with my incident that day has made me realise that they are only too aware of the continuum, and the importance of taking these issues seriously. I have received two follow-up emails and a victim care card. My advice to any woman out there who experiences this would be to phone 999. Immediately. Don’t make like Cagney and walk on. These guys are preying on our ‘don’t make a fuss’ culture and they need to be stopped.

I know that there will be some people reading this thinking I’m making a fuss – hell, even I thought I was wasting police time at the start of it all. But then I heard about those two young girls and thought about the lone woman I saw, unaware of the guy scoping her out as a potential victim, and I’m so glad that guy encouraged me to call the police.

Make the fuss, ladies. Seek the attention.

It’s the only way things are going to change.

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(Special thanks to PC Kate Whitaker of the Metropolitan Police).

Read an interesting piece from a police officer on the non-reporting of these crimes:

“We all need to change our attitude towards indecent exposure. This is not a cheeky chappie having a bit of fun. We need to lose this ‘harmless seaside postcard’ image of a flasher that sadly all too often still seems to prevail. We’re talking about people that may go on to commit serious sexual offences.”

Knee Jerk

When Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn appeared to be proposing women-only train carriages this morning, I reacted the same way as many women did: knee jerk. In a bid to end sexual harassment of women in public places, Corbyn had actually said that he was proposing to consult with women’s groups on the right way to raise awareness and tackle the problem. Fair enough. All good with that. Just maybe don’t even mention segregating us as we’re not the ones at fault here.

Just last week I decided to record it on Twitter every time I was harassed in public. On the first day, during a two-hour walk from north-west London to King’s Cross, I was hassled four times, the first occurring eight minutes after leaving my flat. I could see that decent chaps on my Twitter feed were a) horrified and b) surprised by the sheer regularity of it. Why don’t women talk about it, they ask? I say, because we’ve been brought up to keep it quiet. It happens mostly when we’re on our own. We’re told we’re making a fuss or attention-seeking if we mention it, and should accept it all as the most glorious compliment. It’s worth listening to Everyday Sexism‘s Laura Bates on the subject – it’s a near-universal female experience.

I think the only reason we’re talking about it now is the rise of the female voice on social media. For the past few years we’ve slowly begun to record instances of harassment and have other women say, ” that happened to me” back to us. Laura Bates’ project has aggregated that experience into a global phenomenon, with women and men of all ages, going to her website to record the things they’ve witnessed or been subject to.

Predictably the press jumped on the women-only carriage concept as a stick to beat Corbyn with, as he’s a controversial candidate and there are many who want to see him go down. But like many men, he’s principled and is trying to work out what to do about the problem whilst simultaneously not being quite able to believe how enormous it is.

I think it’s laudable to want to work closely with women’s groups on how to tackle these issues, but really, the conversation needs to start with men. They’re the ones doing the harassing, they’re the ones we’re being advised to protect ourselves from, holed up in women-only spaces. As Everyday Sexism on Twitter puts it, “this puts the responsibility to deal with harassment/assault onto the victim instead of the perpetrator where it belongs. It plays into victim-blaming culture of ‘why didn’t she keep herself safe’ rather than ‘why did he harass/assault her’.”

Immediately my mind went to what would happen if we implemented women-only carriages – some men finding it hilarious to get into one and hassling the occupants like a collie with a pen full of frightened sheep. The emergence of Platform Pests as these men realise that they can find a whole bunch of us herding together, waiting for our carriage, and surely one of us will take them up on their advances. And so on.

If you have the conversation with women only, then you’ll learn something about the experience but you’re preaching to the converted. We know what street harassment is like – most of us experience it every day of our post-puberty lives. It’s like a sidebar of commentary that we’ve learned to roll our eyes at, walk away from, look on in bemusement when a guy is gesticulating wildly at us but we are wearing headphones so can’t hear what he’s saying. (That’s actually my favourite, depending on the appropriateness of the soundtrack.)

What compounds the experience is when we’re told we should take it all as a compliment or when men (and some women) think we’re just making a fuss over nothing. They’re only hearing about isolated incidents, but we now know that this is an endemic activity. If we mentioned it every time it happened, you wouldn’t hear about anything else (even I got bored with my Twitter feed last week as I recorded the incidents).

So somewhere along the line, this conversation has to start with boys and men. It’s a conversation about a sense of entitlement to a woman’s body, personal space and attention, and about how that is not the birthright of a male. Part of me thinks there’s no hope of even starting to say anything. It’s too late. I could start to sound like generations of women before me who shrugged or laughed it off and said, “it’s just how things are.”

Or I could continue to say, “this is how things are” in a bid to bring greater awareness to my small corner of the world. To keep mentioning the unmentionable things until the stream of all the mentions becomes too big a thing to ignore or disbelieve.

So, Mr Corbyn, I’m asking that should you become a leader and consult with women on this subject, that you will at least attempt to start the conversation with boys and men. You’ll probably find that this is the biggest challenge you’ll ever face in politics, but I’d respect you for trying.