Stop telling women to use public transport to stay safe

·5-min read
‘My ability to trust the public transport system was swiftly taken away from me’  (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
‘My ability to trust the public transport system was swiftly taken away from me’ (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

“Walk a well-lit road. Call a friend. Take a cab. Carry your keys in between your fingers. Get an Uber. Take the tube.”

Women know the neverending rigmarole that comes with existing; the dull pulse of fear that goes hand in hand with the basic requirements of day to day life. We live in a world where a woman can’t walk home without fearing for her life as she makes her way between point A and point B. This has never been more true than now, as the depths of Wayne Couzens’s violence and gross abuse of power against Sarah Everard permeates the news cycle, and Sabina Nessa’s alleged murderer sees his first day in court.

Inevitably, the discourse around Sarah and Sabina has revolved around their decision to walk, alone, in the dark. Many questioned why they would do something so brazen as to attempt to make their way to a destination on foot – never mind the fact that Sabina’s was only five minutes from her home. “Why didn’t she take the Tube?” they asked.

I have lived in London for three years. For the first two-and-a-half years of that time, I navigated the London public transport system deftly, quietly comforted by the density of people and the perceived safety that comes with the thronging crowds. I would make sure my valuables were kept close to my body, more scared of being pickpocketed than assaulted, never considering that this busy network that hurtles so many millions of people around one of the world’s most populated cities could prove to be distinctly unsafe.

On the 29 June 2021 that bubble was popped, and my ability to trust the public transport system was swiftly taken away from me.

While on a moderately busy Central Line carriage, a drunk man got on and sat opposite me. At the next stop, a few people moved. I berated myself for feeling worried – told myself, don’t assume he’s going to harm you just because he’s intoxicated, perhaps he himself might need some help to get off at the right stop, and most obviously: this tube carriage is busy. I am safe here. But I was not.

As my end of the carriage slowly emptied, this man got up and, while looking me dead in the eye, took his penis out of his trousers. I looked away. My initial reaction was to laugh. I caught eyes with the girl opposite me and shared an exasperated look. I looked up again to see he was still staring.

The girl gestured at me from behind her mask: “Are you ok?” I moved to the seat at the end of the block, as far away from him as possible. He turned around and began to piss against the wall. Finally, at the next stop, as the girl was getting off, I moved carriages. She made sure I was safe before she left – I will always be grateful to her.

He yelled between the windows of the carriages as we pulled out of the station. “Take your f****** mask off”. My heart remained firmly lodged in my throat until he finally got off two stops before me.

I didn’t think this was sexual harrassment. It was only at my sister’s encouragement that I reported this incident to the British Transport Police, who informed me that there was little they could do – despite me providing them with a thorough description, his station of departure and accurate timestamps.

I started to wonder if I was over-exaggerating; maybe he just needed to wee, perhaps I was dramatising the benign. Then it occurred to me that Wayne Couzens had exposed himself in public just a short time before he kidnapped, raped and murdered Sarah Everard. I wondered if this experience was more sinister than I was allowing myself to believe.

Two months later, on 2 September, it happened again. I was thoroughly ensconced in my book when I looked up to see my end of the carriage had entirely cleared out save for one man. My skin prickled. Subconsciously, I began to scratch the inside of my arms – that soft spot of skin on the underside of my elbow. A buzzing began in the back of my brain. “Something isn’t right”, it repeated, over and over again.

As if on cue, the man moved to a standing position, leaning against the end of the carriage, just the glass partition separating me from him; his crotch at my eye level. He moved his hand, and began to touch himself, on top of his trousers, staring at me the whole time. I turned and I looked, staring back at him.

Willing myself to realise that yes this was happening again – and no, I’m not going crazy – my brain snapped back into motion and I moved. Nobody further down the carriage caught my eye. None of them seemed to even register my distress.

After the first time, I convinced myself that, by average odds, it was only a matter of time before I’d be left feeling uncomfortable on the tube. I pushed it to the back of my head. I told the story with a sense of detached disgust. After the second time, I got in a taxi from the station and burst into tears as soon as I stepped through the door. I felt tarnished. I felt icky. “Twice in as many months,” I kept thinking. “I must have done something to bring it on.”

The reality is, nothing I did could have encouraged or stopped what happened to me on either of those occasions. It could have been any woman sitting where I was. Because the responsibility does not lie with me. It does not lie with Sarah Everard. It does not lie with the 80 women who have been killed by men since she died.

It does not lie with Sabina Nessa. It lies with men. “Walk a well lit road. Call a friend. Take a cab. Carry your keys in between your fingers. Get an Uber. Take the Tube.” What women do will never make a difference until men realise the one basic mantra: don’t.

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