Earlier this year, a boy hit me on the street near my house.
He didn’t hit me hard. But he still hit me. He still hit me.
No man has ever hit me before.
About a month before this incident, a man tried to follow me home.
I was walking across a bridge that separates central Bristol from my neighbourhood, when he started running behind me and shouting to me. There was no one around. I kept walking across the bridge, towards the crossing which had just changed to a Red Man.
Please let there be no traffic, I kept whispering to myself. Please let there be no traffic.
If there was traffic, I’d have to stop, and he would catch me. If there was traffic, I wouldn’t be able to get away.
I got across the road and the traffic stopped him. Without thinking, I turned from my normal route home across the quiet churchyard and down a quiet street to walk down the busy road and through the brightly lit supermarket. It takes longer this way, but like women all around the world I told myself I’d be safer where the lights are brighter. I told myself this, even though a few weeks earlier a drunk man had shouted obscenities at me in the place I now reached out to as some kind of brightly coloured, muzack-ed sanctuary.
After the supermarket, I walked on the main road with its street lamps and its pubs and its neon shop fronts.
It was on that street where, a few weeks later, the boy hit me.
I could tell you all the things I told myself, the answers to the questions you get asked when a boy or a man hits you on the street. It wasn’t late. It was about 9.20pm. I wasn’t drunk. (He was. He was very, very drunk.) I was wearing… I can’t remember, probably jeans. My leather jacket.
I was walking home the safe way, the main street way, the street-lit way, and a group of drunk teenagers approached me, jeering, and the largest boy swung his arm and hit me across the face, the side of his hand knocking against my glasses.
I shouted at them. I was proud of myself for that.
The next day I had to go back down the street to the supermarket. A man bowled out of a pub doorway and crashed into me, swore at me for being in his way.
I burst into tears.
For weeks afterwards, I had a changed attitude towards my city. I approached walking home with a heightened sense of fear – a level of fear I’d perhaps naively not had before. When friends peeled off from the street on our way home from the pub, I faced the rest of the walk home with my heart pounding. For the first time, I carried my keys sticking out of my knuckles, Wolverine style. I was pathetically grateful when a friend lied – saying he fancied a stroll and walked home via my flat. I hung around the cab rank with groups of women friends, glad to have people to share a taxi home with.
I’m not alone with that fear, or with the decision to change my behaviour to manage my fear. Half of 42,000 European women responded to a survey saying they restricted their freedom of movement to avoid gender-based violence. Women everywhere have learned to develop a hard stare, to carry their keys in their fists, to pretend to talk on a silent phone.
In our desire to keep ourselves safe, women walk fewer steps than men, research shared in the Guardian last week suggested. Weighing up our risks of being on the street, we are more likely to catch buses or get taxis home over short distances. Fear not only changes our behaviour on the streets, it costs us money and harms our physical health.
It’s six months since a boy hit me on the street, and on Thursday I’m convening a panel called ‘What if women built cities?’ for Bristol’s Festival of Future Cities. How would we build cities, to make them safer places for women? To make them places where women aren’t forced into cabs, aren’t forced to tentatively ask for an escort home, don’t weigh up whether it’s too late to take the shortcut through the churchyard, don’t nervously eye the clock and think we should probably leave, now, before it’s too late?
After all, if we walk home on our own past a certain hour, and something happens to us, then we know the first question we’ll be asked is: Why were you walking home on your own anyway?
There are practical things I can think of to build safer cities for women: more street lights, more public toilets with female attendants. Wider pavements, especially outside bars where groups of drinking men congregate with cigarettes. We could have more and better policing at taxi ranks, and the recent London Uber decision shows we need improved regulation of these services. There’s the need to build more social housing – women are the hidden face of our homelessness crisis, trapped behind B&B and hotel room doors.
But fundamentally, we need to build a different society.
In her book, Radical Feminism, my fellow panellist Dr Finn Mackay interviewed women about their experiences on ‘Reclaim the Night’ marches. Many responded to say how it felt like they were ‘trespassing’ when they marched – that the act of taking up public space felt revolutionary and transgressive. Their responses show how much women internalise and put up with the feeling that the streets aren’t for us.
When men choose to shout, harass, follow, even abuse us on the streets, they are asserting male entitlement and power. This is our space, their actions say. And you are not supposed to be here. If you are here, then you need to be ready for us to judge, mock, threaten, attack you. If you don’t want to be judged, mocked, threatened or attacked then go home. Get back in the domestic sphere, where you belong.
To build cities for women, we need first to build a society that respects women. We need to build a society where a woman can walk home at any time of the day or night, taking any route she chooses, without being made to feel afraid. We need a society where women aren’t quizzed about those choices, when the worst happens and men attack us.
We need a society where women see public space as for them, in the same way men do.
Sian Norris is a writer. She blogs at sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com and is the Founder & Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival.