Over the last month I've been in the process of moving into my own place and practising for life without domestic help (my maid leaves permanently next week and it's uncertain when I will find someone else), and so I've spent a lot more time out in the 'real world' than I normally would. I was told, and it made sense to me, that living on my own would be more difficult than the life I was used to, and in some ways I had prepared myself for it. One thing I failed to factor in though, was how unsafe I would feel while just going about living my life.
While I was still living with family, I was often driven around. I also had more disposable income and so could afford to take taxis regularly, but living on your own has its way of forcing you to trim the excess, so I've started taking danfo and the BRT a lot more. I spend more time walking on busy roads and go to the market more; I'm generally in public spaces more. The upshot of all this being out in the world is that I've experienced a lot more street/sexual harassment and sexist (micro-)aggressions in the last few weeks than the entire year prior.
Leaving the house now requires a ridiculous amount of thought. My stress levels are higher when I have to go out because, depending on whether I feel up to standing up for myself or not, I have to carefully evaluate my outfits to ward off harassment. I have to think carefully about routes, be constantly alert when it starts to get dark, try to figure out whether it's safer to ignore catcalling or respond as politely as possible and walk away quickly... In the last month I've had one man pull out his penis and waggle it at me on the street, had a group of men call out to my two-year old daughter about her bum, been followed by several men, and (of course) had sexist slurs shouted at me.
Last night I had to go out around 9pm to buy insecticide. I didn't feel like changing out of the clothes I had on (a loose shirt and mid-thigh bodycon skirt), but I suspected how things would go. I wasn't disappointed. I hadn't walked 15 metres from my street's gate before someone had tried to initiate contact and then proceeded to insult me when I ignored him. Two metres beyond him a group of men on a balcony started to call down to me. Another metre or so in front, some teenage boys walked past me, leering, and once they were behind me began to heckle me. On my way back home one man followed me very closely for over 100 metres, alternating between cajoling and threatening whispers, walking closer to me in the darker parts and drifting away where there were security lights, until I got to my street's gate and the security guard blocked him.
As I walked home I realised that if I told someone about that distressing experience, I was more likely to get a "but why did you wear that skirt?" than a "but why would someone follow a non-communicative stranger home?" Women are told and taught to do everything they can to protect ourselves, yet no one ever seems to question why there is even a need for self-protection. People say, "women, protect yourselves" and stop short of the "from men" part of that phrase. This is why no matter what women do, we continue to suffer all kinds of violence; people choose not to engage with the cause of the violence.
Telling women that we ought to limit our choices and even our lives in order to ward off violence is not and will never be effective in preventing or protecting us from violence, because women's choices, bodies and lives are not the cause of violence. The sense of entitlement, superiority and ownership that men feel over women and our bodies is. The privileging of maleness and male desires over women's safety and agency is. The dangerous man-as-hunter norm that teaches men to ignore consent and the absence of it is. The sexual objectification and commodification of women's bodies for male consumption is. And until society starts to interrogate the reasons behind all of the 'should nots' that are prescribed for women 'for their protection', we will continue to see women 'fail' at protecting themselves.
It was never about women protecting ourselves. It has always been about the men we need to protect ourselves from.