ON THE FRONT LINES: Problematic behaviors require open discussion
On the Front Lines
On Thursday I got on the subway and I felt invincible.
I experienced the familiar rushes from moving on fast trains and got dizzy with the intoxication that comes from big cities as I soaked in every crevice of each moment.
Those feelings quickly dissipated when a man walked past me and wounded his fingers in my hair. He told me that my hair was beautiful and he walked away. I kept looking down.
On Friday I went into work, tired but prepared for the day, in glasses and loose clothes. I felt like a professional and rolled my sleeves, a silent signal to myself to get prepared for all of the work ahead.
Those feelings vanished when an older man I never met found every excuse to touch me. My shoulders, arms and waist were no longer parts of me, but the areas within reach of a strange man.
On Saturday I went to a community event with friends. I laughed about how underdressed I was and felt reassured by the smiles from pretty girls my age, smiling and happy to be with people so like-minded as me.
The smiles disappeared when a man that was almost as old as my grandfather sat next to me. He guessed my ethnicity and moved closer. He told me that I have a “robust figure and beautiful face” and moved closer. Everyone knows what robust is a synonym for. He guessed my age and moved closer. He ate all of the cookies I bought from the fundraiser, sitting so close his crumbs fell on my lap.
I wish I was lying for dramatic effect when I said all of these things happened to me three days in a row. I really do wish I was inflating these experiences for dramatic effect, to create a much-needed discourse.
I wish I could say that I can bury all of this and excuse all of these actions with a minor sigh and a shrug. I wish I could say I stopped thinking about what happened after it did. I wish I could say I am the only femme-identifying person in the world that this sort of thing happens to.
If I am not safe in big cities maybe I would understand. Those “be careful” lectures from my mom were purposeful, after all. But I will never understand if I am unsafe in community spaces where people look like me and claim they have the same world views as me.
Maybe I should not have looked down when he wounded his fingers in my hair. And maybe I should have asked the man to stop touching my shoulders because it made me uncomfortable. And maybe I just should not have started a conversation with a trusted older individual in my community.
I just felt so powerless in all of those situations that speaking up did not even cross my mind. Powerless and defeated. I hate having to think about passing on those “be careful” lectures to younger women I know.
I hate the feelings of helplessness. I was raised to figure things out on my own. If there is a problem, there is always some sort of solution, just waiting to be conjured up.
The only solution I can come up with is open discussion and awareness.
I write this now because it is the only thing I can do. I was going to cut my hair again and I was going to wear different clothes again and I was going to reinvent myself all over again in any desperate attempt to dim how I am feeling. I was going to tell myself to stop feeling so invincible and to start feeling more aware.
But why should I? Why should I make myself miserable with all of the ways I can change myself, when I do not need changing at all?
I recognize that so many other people have experienced far worse, but I can only speak to what I have experienced and hope to give a voice to those that want to join this discussion. I can only take everything I learn and everything I want to learn and put it into something that will make us stronger and more willing to address things that do not feel right.
To the men out there that claim to be one of the good ones: Prove it. Speaking up is the absolute bare minimum. We expect you to speak up. Call out your problematic friends, try to stop situations from escalating further by using your actions and positions in society.
We need to keep talking about this. I am thankful for shows like “Sex Education” and open discussions with other women to validate these sorts of feelings. But this is only the beginning.
We need a serious societal makeover, and perhaps this article’s desperate plea will be a step in the right direction.
Ameena Qobrtay is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in women’s and gender studies and journalism and media studies, and minoring in political science. She is the Features editor for The Daily Targum.
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