Without thinking, I turned from the main, busy street into a side alley. I was running late to see a friend, and Google Maps showed this route through dark, pot-holed Athens back streets to be the fastest way to get to my destination. I hurried along, frowning down at the map on my phone screen whilst music blared through my headphones. I don’t know when I became aware of his presence. But I remember feeling my stomach drop. You are not safe said my body to my mind.
CW: Sexual Assault
I turned my head to look at the man strolling beside me. He was unremarkable in every way except for the fact that he was holding his penis in his hand, and twirling it in slow, deliberate circles. Waves of panic crashed through me. I scanned the street for the safety of another person, somebody to put a stop to this. But we were alone.
Eyes glued to my phone I watched the minutes go by as we continued down the street together. It was like wading through thick, heavy wet concrete. I felt stuck, powerless to say or do anything except direct all my energy into moving forwards. The only thought ringing through my head was how long is this going to go on?
It lasted three whole minutes. Finally the side street connected to a main road and the man tucked his genitals back into his trousers and slunk away to carry on with his life. And I was left to resume mine. At that moment I got a text from a friend asking whether this was a good time to call. A lifeline. I immediately clicked call and burst into tears as I relayed the events of the past three minutes to her.
‘I’m so sorry’ she soothed.
‘No, it’s really not okay’ she replied firmly.
The next day, I had been invited by a friend to an Easter party. I was surrounded by smiling strangers who were sharing food and pouring wine and who did not know that I was wrestling with an overwhelming sense of dread. Even though I was safe, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something terrible was about to happen. I got a text from my best friend to say she had arrived and was waiting for me to let her in downstairs. I ran down to meet her, praying that she would tell me that everything was fine and nothing bad had happened. But when I told her, she frowned and said ‘Laila, that’s so horrible, I’m really sorry.’
‘No, no, it’s okay’ I stressed, unsure of whether I was trying to convince her or myself.
‘But it’s okay if it’s not okay’ she replied.
A few weeks later I left Athens and returned home to London. While away, I had denied myself any time to address my feelings. Between balancing volunteering, university work and social commitments, there was (conveniently) no appropriate time to check in with myself. But now I was home and I now had (inconveniently) a lot of time. I began by trying to rationalise my feelings away. I tried to reason with myself that because, I had emerged physically unscathed, it was not a big deal. I still had the privilege of living each day without trouble. Some women go through unimaginable things. My story in comparison was a minor disturbance. Did I really have any right to complain or even talk about my experience?
I went round and round in circles in my own head. It took me a long time to realise that by not validating my own experience, I was denying it.. By not condemning that behaviour, I was condoning it. Although some women are subject to horrific crimes, almost all women experience some form of sexual violence. In the UK alone, 71% of women have been the victim of sexual harassment in public. And it’s these small acts, the ones that get brushed aside or dismissed, that are the ones that happen most frequently. Yet denying their impact only bolsters the power of the patriarchal structures that render it possible for men to violate both women’s bodies and space. Talking about these things, without diminishing their effects on our psyche, detracts from those power systems. As a friend so aptly put it, ‘you may be okay but it is not.’
It came as a shock to me that despite my deep, personal engagement with feminism and the fact that I co-founded this very website to engage with these important topics, I still found it hard to talk about it without making light of the situation. I was afraid of playing into the insidious, patriarchal tropes of the ‘drama queen’ or ‘whiny feminist’. But the friends who I have told, most of them women, have not let me shrug or joke my way out of my experience. They have supported me but have firmly guided me to eventually accept the inevitable conclusion: what happened cannot be justified and it wasn’t my fault. Some friends even shared their own stories of assault with me, which helped connect the dots in the wider conversation.
We should amplify our stories, no matter how trivial they may seem. Some people might decide not to share their story, and that’s okay. There should never be any pressure to join the conversation. But there shouldn’t be a stigma against doing so either. Sharing stories with friends felt like mobilising a collective force demanding change and solidarity. We refuse to be silent. So now when I tell the story, I am finally learning to conclude it with the truth: it’s not okay.
Laila Ghaffar, Co-founder
image via Unsplash