I don’t know one woman who doesn’t fear walking around the city alone

·5-min read
Chief Superintendent Trevor Lawry by the floral tributes near where the body of Sabina Nessa was found (PA)
Chief Superintendent Trevor Lawry by the floral tributes near where the body of Sabina Nessa was found (PA)

Barely six months after the murder of Sarah Everard, once again we are collectively overwhelmed by sadness and horror at another young woman being murdered as she was walking from A to B in the the city she lived in.

When the photo of Sabina Nessa on her graduation day splashed all over the internet, I knew, without even reading the text, this was another horror story. “That’s somebody’s baby”, I think when I see her picture – just as I did with Sarah and every other woman whose life has been taken in this way. “How dare anyone take the life of somebody’s baby?”

I don’t know a woman who doesn’t know the fear of walking around the city alone. When I was younger, we’d swap tips. “Walk in the middle of the road! It’s better lit and you’re more visible – but bear in mind more people are run over than murdered, ha ha!”

I sometimes wonder if men even know about The Fear that women live with. Many men cross the road away from women when they see them walking alone; they’ve either been told or have worked out that this makes us feel safer.

The Fear is ingrained in women, yet we rarely talk about it. Not in any meaningful way. Until something horrific like this happens.

Then we say out loud that what happened to these women is the reason we hold our keys between our knuckles at night, walk taller, keep flat shoes in our bags, take much longer routes to avoid quiet spots, jump out of our skin when we hear footsteps too close behind us. We talk about how we have carried on walking when a car stops to ask us for directions, because the other 99 per cent of the time – when a car slows – it’s to shout obscene things at us, or to try to lure us in.

I was 14 when two men stopped their car at the bus stop I was waiting at, outside Ealing Hospital, where I was visiting my nan. “You could be a model, you know, we’re model agents. Get in and we can go to the studio and take some pictures.” Now, I had seen the film Fame when Coco similarly got lured in by a “photographer” who then got her to take her top off and clicked away, while she sat there topless and sobbing. Thank goodness I did. I ran back into the hospital until I was sure they had gone, then dashed fearfully home.

Then there was the guy who used to hang around in Ealing Broadway shopping centre when I was a teenager and follow me around, begging to take me for a drive “somewhere nice”. He’d worked out my bus route to school and would often be on it, waiting for me, until I began to take longer, different routes – endlessly looking over my shoulder, terrified he’d find me.

These are just a couple of stories from a lifetime of avoiding “pervs”, as we used to call these men. “Pervs” is a peculiarly gentle term for men you fear might end your life – or else cause you serious harm.

Why is there still this acceptance that this is just part of being a woman? Worrying someone might kill you as you mind your own business, travelling from A to B?

There is a maddening instinct in some people, when a woman is murdered like this, to look to see how she herself could have avoided it happening. “Had she taken enough care not to be murdered? Did she factor in the murder risk when she planned her night, wore her clothes or drank her drinks?” Then there’s the recrimination: “If only she had been more careful then she wouldn’t have got murdered. You look both ways when you cross the road, don’t you? Well, then, why shouldn’t we look at ways women can be more vigilant to avoid getting murdered? Where did these murdered women go wrong?”

This horror happens too frequently to be seen as an anomaly each time. But the questions we really need answering are why some men do this. Are they psychopaths? Have they been brainwashed by porn? Have they just got a screw loose? What are the signs to look out for that might give a clue that a man you encounter might do this?

There are counter-terror measures in place to encourage us to look out for people acting suspiciously on public transport, to look out for comments and signs that someone may have it in for the rest of us. There are numbers to call. Schools are advised to look out for signs that a child is being “radicalised”. Can we not, in a similar way, look out for men who dehumanise women in a way that we suspect (and fear) means they have no empathy for them?

How many men put up with mates who make ghastly misogynistic comments – and how many women do and just roll their eyes? I’m not saying we should report every sexist comment or dehumanising “joke” to the police but can we have the confidence to call it out among friends, friends of friends, colleagues, family members?

Can’t we change our culture so that men make it clear to other men that hateful language towards women is unacceptable? Can’t we investigate what to do about violent porn and the people who get addicted to it?

How can we stop that seed of hatred and violent fantasy growing to the point that they act it out? I don’t have any answers, I’m just one of millions, grieving – once again – for a stranger. Devastated by the fact that we can’t un-murder young women walking home or on the way out to meet their friends.

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