How do we ‘Reclaim These Streets’?

April 21, 2021

Collage created by Finn Souter with concept contributions from Nikol Nikolova. Building at night, photograph by Bob Williams of Pixabay

Nikol Nikolova reports on the Sarah Everard case and interviews young women about their experiences of sexual harassment

Don’t wear short skirts. Message me when you’re home. Don’t make eye contact with strangers. Avoid dark alleys and empty streets. Don’t wear revealing clothes that can attract male attention.

Women, including myself, hear this standard lecture all the time and we’ve completely normalised these precautions every time we go out. Ultimately, for us to be seen is to be a target.

In early March, 33-year-old Sarah Everard, disappeared while she was walking home along the brightly lit streets of south London, and yet she still ended up dead.

In the days following her disappearance, posters lined the streets and people took to social media desperately seeking any information about her. An official investigation was launched and, not long after, the BBC reported that police searching in woodland near Ashford in Kent had found Sarah’s body.

Shock waves tore across the country. Thousands of women protesting and speaking up on social media reopened the debate about sexual harassment, victim-blaming and whether or not we’re doing enough as a society to protect our female population.

Research conducted by UN Women UK revealed that 97% of women aged 18 to 24 have been sexually harassed. Only 4% made a report, while the other 96% doubted the authorities ability to handle the incident.

Maria ran for cover into a corner shop, but after a while stepping outside she realised he was still there, waiting for her

According to the same research, 80% of all women reported that they had been sexually harassed in public spaces in the UK. Sadly, this occurrence is not just limited to this country. It’s an experience that unites women globally.

The Reclaim These Streets movement was organised by a group of women in response to Sarah’s murder, and it aims to raise awareness of women’s safety in public spaces.

Women’s survival instincts kick in countless times a day. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve sped to my house because I’ve been inappropriately catcalled and ogled at by groups of men, and even followed.

I decided to talk to four young women I know to learn about their experiences of sexual harassment. These interviews reveal the harsh reality of being a female in public spaces.

Maria, now 22, recalls being stalked by a man. “I noticed him staring at me, in a way that a grown man should not be staring at a 14-year-old child, with a disturbing smile.”

Maria ran for cover into a corner shop, but after a while stepping outside she realised he was still there, waiting for her. “His grin was enough to make the hairs on my skin stand up. He started asking personal questions like which school did I go to and where did I live.”

Alex was followed and groped by a man on her way home from school. She remembers feeling paralysed with fear.

Running to get home, Maria remembers him laughing in the background. “It was like he was mocking me; like he enjoyed feeling powerful and scaring a young girl.”

Maria was too afraid and embarrassed to tell anyone. She insists she wouldn’t have been taken seriously. Many people would rather bury these difficult issues and “live their lives unfazed because it hasn’t happened to them.”

Alex, 23, experienced harassment during her early teens. She was followed and groped by a man on her way home from school. She remembers feeling paralysed with fear.

Although the police were called, Alex felt too uncomfortable to recount the full extent of what had happened. “It wasn’t handled well by the police, and I didn’t feel I could share my full experience. The abuse was dismissed as the predator just trying to be friendly!”

Alex received some support from family, but like many others, was blamed for walking home alone in the dark. Alex agrees that the concept of Reclaim These Streets is brilliant, but she believes that “making streets safe for women by addressing the misogyny and sexism in our society is something that will take generations to reform.”

Many women believe in the importance of circulating information about potential danger. Emma, now 23, recalls how an announcement at school about a local man wanted by the police for harassing girls, made her hyper-vigilant.

I stopped walking. I froze. He was watching me, he stared at me and stopped.

While walking to school, Emma saw someone who looked identical to the man in the photo she’d seen the day before. “I froze. He was watching me. I stopped walking. He stopped, pretending to tie his shoes. He stared at me. I dashed behind a parked car,” she recalls.

Emma waited and eventually started walking slowly while checking that the man was far away. That afternoon, she shared what had happened with her teacher. She was criticised for not going home or calling somebody, but mentions that “at the time, my mind went blank and I didn’t know what to do.”

It was later confirmed that the man Emma had encountered was the person wanted by the police.

It’s clear that many young women have suffered some type of harassment in their school years. A few weeks ago, the police launched an investigation into sexual assault allegations at London schools, after a website, set up by 22-year-old Soma Sara, highlighted the issues.

Everyone’s Invited is a platform aiming to tackle rape culture and harassment in schools by allowing survivors to share their stories. It’s vital that such conversations start early, as it’s far too common for young girls to face sexual harassment.

Then there is also the question of women travelling alone abroad.

I ran as fast as I could while scanning my surroundings for a potential weapon

Irina, 22, is someone for whom exploring is a deep passion. Once, while travelling solo in Europe, Irina’s bus arrived at the station late at night. When she got off, the passengers from the bus quickly dispersed. It dawned on her that she was now alone on a road full of men, many of whom were drinking. They started circling her, giving her voyeuristic looks and catcalling.

“It all played out like a thriller. I started going over rape cases reported on the news. I ran as fast as I could to my hotel while scanning my surroundings for a potential weapon,” she recalls. Irina also remembers being groped on a train while travelling and being followed to her hotel in broad daylight.

Irina explains that she has trouble sharing these experiences as she fears the criticism that she somehow dressed provocatively and incited the man’s predatory behaviour.

Our interviewees all come from different ethnic backgrounds and it’s important for the Reclaim These Streets movement to include all women. There have been many cases, which haven’t received the same attention due to the victim’s different ethnic, racial or religious background. This reveals a deeper, systemic issue.

On June 7th last year, black sisters Nicole Smallman, 27, and Bibaa Henry, 46, were stabbed to death and their bodies were found in Wembley. However, these murders, reported by the BBC, didn’t get nearly as much attention as the Sarah Everard case, even though two officers were suspended for taking selfies next to the dead bodies.

Sarah’s case is just one example of the millions of women that suffer globally. This cycle will continue until it’s broken. Let’s make sure this isn’t just another hashtag that fades into the shadows. Stay strong and safe sisters!

Nikol graduated from King’s College London with a first-class degree in Spanish and Portuguese studies. She is of Bulgarian origin, enjoys dancing, travelling and learning about history and culture. Nikol enjoys tackling and investigating difficult and taboo topics in her writing.

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