Two and a half years ago I had one of the best weekends of my life in Manchester. Fully done up with fake tan, blonde highlights, ‘disco pink’ nails, a new dress and impossibly high heels I strutted through the city centre on my hen do. Much to my surprise it turned out to be a truly cheesy and tacky affair. Each step of the way I was given a new piece of hen do tat: a garter, a flashing tiara, a hen-to-be sash, a sparkly veil. Even more to my surprise, I absolutely loved it! I couldn’t have asked for a more fun and better organised weekend.
So it was with sadness that last night, after watching Newsnight’s (rather tokenistic) discussion about modern feminism, I found myself remembering the one negative moment of that carefree girls trip.
Walking through the Piccadilly area around 6pm – that time of the weekend when evening revellers mix freely with families on their way home from a busy day shopping – I was chatting and giggling with my best friends. Suddenly, I found myself up in the air and moving swiftly away from them. A man I didn’t know had picked me up and slung me over his shoulder in the style of a Neanderthal carrying home his day’s hunting. He proceeded to run around the street, slapping me hard on my bum and showing off his ‘prize’ to his mates. I kicked and screamed and eventually he put me down, where I was comforted by my friends who had been running around after me.
The whole affair lasted less than a minute, but it was awful. I felt scared, angry and mortified. How dare he? What made him think he had the right? The answer, unfortunately, was obvious. I was a girl on a hen do and clearly therefore , anything goes. Gradually I found myself feeling less angry with him and more annoyed with myself. I worried people would think I was hysterical. Clearly it was a joke, so why had I been shouting so angrily? Shaken up but determined not to let it ruin my day, I carried on towards Pizza Express (I told you it was a classy do!).
Moments later I was approached by a young police officer. He had seen the whole thing and wanted to check I was ok. I was immediately comforted. He explained that the group the man was from were still around and seemed to be watching us so he would follow us to our next destination at a distance to make sure we were all ok.
‘Aaw, wasn’t that lovely.’ We all exclaimed over dinner. ‘Really reassures you to know the police are watching and looking after people.’ With that, we attempted to put the whole business behind us and get on with eating, drinking and dancing the night away.
But was it lovely? If the police officer really thought the man was watching us and posed enough of a threat that we needed an escort, why didn’t he actually DO anything? No one even spoke to that man, never mind took any action to reprimand him for his abhorrent and misogynistic actions. Instead, I was left feeling vulnerable and slightly to blame – I brought attention to myself by dressing up so what did I expect?
On yesterday’s Newsnight, professional controversial opinion-giver Angela Epstein argued there was no need for modern feminism as all the major battles had been won. She bemoaned people whinging about ‘minor’ issues via forums such as @everydaysexism and argued that if people really had been harassed they could always report it to the police to deal with.
With all due respect Angela, you’re missing the point.
Women don’t report these incidents because they don’t feel they can. They either feel it was their own fault in some way or don’t see the point, because these types of sexist actions are so common they’re barely taken seriously and almost certainly nothing will actually happen.
These are not ‘minor’ issues.
As I was carried down the street by a stranger on my hen do, my mind raced back to a year earlier when I was grabbed and carried down a side street two minutes walk from my house. Once there, a stranger held a knife to my throat and proceeded to put his hands on my legs. Were it not for a well placed elbow and an awful lot of kicking and screaming on my part, I dread to think what could have happened. It was the most terrifying experience of my life, and one which hopefully most people will never experience.
But how big a step is it really from what that man presumably though was a ‘joke’ on my hen do to that other terrifying incident which led to a 999 call? On both occasions, a man felt I was fair game. On both occasions, I was robbed of control of my own body, albeit momentarily. In both cases, though the police were involved, no one was ever held to account.
I’m a strong woman and moved on swiftly with my life, but I can’t say that being grabbed off the street by a stranger is something that I could ever put totally behind me. It’s no coincidence that the number of nights out I have without my husband decreased dramatically well before we had a child.
If we continue to accept these insidious incidents of sexism, misogyny and oppression as ‘banter’ and ‘minor’, we can never truly expect to tackle the violence which is so regularly perpetrated against women day in, day out. It is not whinging, or moaning, or attention seeking. It’s simply the right thing to do.