Walk a mile in our shoes

The perpetual anxieties felt by women at night

Sepideh Afshar, Opinion Editor

Stage 1: Initial enjoyment

I love walking. From taking in the sights and sounds around me, to feeling the fresh air on my skin, I have fond memories of my walks, both by myself and with others. I often insist on walking home from wherever I may be, even if it means walking alone. The journey itself is almost always preceded by some inner turmoil about how late it is or how safe the route to my destination is—but I am stubborn and almost always end up convincing myself that I will be alright and that there is nothing to be afraid of. Vanessa Richardson, U1 Arts, shares my love of going on walks.

“Walking around downtown Montreal was one of my favourite activities to do while I was on campus last year,” Richardson said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “It was nice being able to walk from my residence to a café to study or get some fresh air to de-stress.”

When I’m alone, I listen to podcasts, my current favourite being Modern Love by The New York Times. Otherwise, I will shuffle a playlist that I specifically curated to accompany me on my solitary walks, designed to get me into a good mood. I often purposely match my steps to the rhythm of the music, feeling like the main character. When I am walking alone, I usually start off feeling calm. Unfortunately, this feeling usually does not last long.

The decision to walk alone triggers a recurring cycle most women and female-presenting individuals experience on a regular basis: We overthink our actions out of a need to ensure our safety in a time where gender-based violence continues to skyrocket. While Montreal is fairly safe compared to other major cities, women’s safety is a perpetual predicament. In the past eight weeks, eight women have been killed in Montreal.

Stage 2: The onset of fear

It is usually when I look around and notice that there are few pedestrians that I become painfully aware of my vulnerability. As a 5-foot-2 woman of colour, it does not take much to feel unsafe on the street whether it be a car slowing down near me or a group of men that are on my path. Richardson noted that she was taught to expect the worst from a young age.

“I have always been concerned about safety while travelling as a woman,” Richardson said. “I was taught to keep my guard up at night, so that is what I did. Knowing [that] cases [of gendered violence] are even more common for women of colour has amplified my own fears.”

As I continue on my way, I feel my adrenaline building, the sun has set and my mind is suddenly occupied by statistics and stories. One in three women in Canada experience unwanted sexual advances in public, and in Montreal, several women have been assaulted while walking in the Plateau. I tell myself I should have taken the bus, yet buses are enclosed spaces and even waiting at a bus stop can be dangerous. Taking an Uber is out of the question, too: The company’s own 2019 safety report included over 3,000 sexual assault claims from clients.

This is where the regret sets in. All the joy and excitement I felt before embarking on my journey home dissipates, and in its place is a feeling of dread. I wonder if anyone will be around to help me if something awful were to happen. The recent case of Sarah Everard, a UK woman killed by a police officer on a walk home in March, plagues my mind. For students like Sophie Arseneault, U1 Arts, Sarah’s story is just the latest reminder of the constant threats women face today, when even those who are supposed to keep us safe can harm us.

“Sarah Everard’s story is one which depicts an abuse of power,” said Arseneault “It is difficult not to assume the fear of repetition in incidents when women are found missing on such a regular basis.”

By the time I realize that no mode of transportation can assure me, the pedestrians who initially prompted my anxieties have long passed by. The looming feeling of discomfort, however, does not fade until I arrive home. The cyclical nature of this feeling on every walk is a reflection of what women are taught to deal with from a young age: Discomfort is expected.

Stage 3: Contingency planning

Plagued with horror stories about the dangers of being a female-passing person out and about, we are often taught to plan ahead to avoid the worst. Richardson stays in contact with friends so they know her whereabouts—a practice often foreign to men.

“I [make] sure to text my friends my location,” Richardson said. “[I] let them know how I’m doing throughout the night, and let them know [when] I got home safely.”

I, on the other hand, usually forget to do so until I am prompted by a message. I scan my brain, trying to remember who I shared my location with. The list includes my sister, my boyfriend, and my roommates, but I am not sure if they would check my location if I did not let them know in advance that I was walking home.

I regret laughing off a self-defense course offered in middle school, realizing I would not know what to do if I was confronted by harm.

Stage 4: Self-soothing

Eventually, my walk brings me to campus. Even if it means taking the long way home, arriving in the area always makes me feel better. The familiarity of the fairly-lit Y intersection and the sight of the Arts building brings a sense of comfort I do not feel on Parc or Sherbrooke. Many women, including Arseneault, consider McGill’s campus to be safe.

“I do feel safe on campus, though primarily on the basis of the active and vibrant life between the Roddick Gates over the spring, summer, and fall months of the year,” Arseneault said. “It is a community I have grown attached to, and feel a relative sense of safety towards.”

Thankfully, being close to campus also means I am closer to home. With only a couple of more blocks to go, I try to regain the sense of calm I had initially, putting on my headphones and trying to enjoy the fresh air.

Stage 5: Stranger danger

Then I see him and realize that my relief was short lived. I have no idea who he is, but he is wearing dark colours and walking behind me. I speed up, which does not do much to calm my racing nerves, since I cannot tell if he is speeding up with me or if I am imagining things. I employ my most-used strategy in these kinds of situations: I look back to send the message that I am scared. This time, it does not help. He seems to be speeding up, but I’m not sure. There is a reason why many women assume the worst when walking at night, and Arseneault outlined what many women face when outside alone.

“I think that I, as many other women have experienced, have faced various incidents of harassment on the streets to a degree where it has become relatively normalized among my loved ones,” Arseneault said. “Whether it [is] being followed late at night by intimidating figures, approached by strangers [...], or being touched in a way that is inappropriate and non-consensual in public spaces, the experience of walking by myself is not one which has continuously proven to be safe.”

I suddenly feel the need to let somebody know where I am, so I grab my phone and call one of my roommates. When no one picks up, I press my phone to my ear and pretend to be talking to someone, hoping that the figure behind me will believe the act. All the precautions women must take seem ridiculous—but even exercising excessive caution is sometimes not enough.

“Minutes before Sarah [Everard] was murdered on her route home, she called her boyfriend to assure him that they would meet the next day,” Richardson said. “Unfortunately, she did not make it to the next day.”

Next, I grip my keys between my knuckles, unsure if I might actually need to use them to defend myself. Zay Rahman, U1 Arts, recalled hearing horror stories about women who did not take precautions, such as carrying self-defence tools.

“Sarah did everything right,” Rahman said. “She wore bright coloured [clothing], she walked on the main road, a lit area, something we were all taught to do and she was met with this gruesome conclusion. We have all had to come back from something that ran longer than expected, and we call ourselves lucky to be able to make it back home safe. But luck should have nothing to do with our safety.”

Stage 6: Relief

I finally turn onto my street. Once I’m inside my apartment, a wave of relief washes over me. I look back out my window, and see the man walk right past my house. I think to myself that he probably was not a threat, just someone else who happened to live on my street. For a moment I feel sheepish for overthinking, but am ultimately grateful that I made it home safe. As I remove my shoes and jacket, I exhale a deep breath. I know I am lucky to be in the comfort of my own home but several women do not reach this stage.

Stage 7: Aftermath

The worst part of walks like this is the feeling of guilt that comes afterwards. I know it is not my fault that I feel unsafe, yet I become angry for blaming myself when I know I cannot control others. The burden of our own safety is heavy, but it should not fall on women alone. Richardson urged men to take responsibility and work toward creating safer spaces for women.

“It’s upsetting that the onus is placed on us as women to ensure our own safety while walking to and from work,” Richardson said. “Men should be responsible for calling out assault when they see it, regardless of whether the perpetrator is a stranger or their own friend. Teach your friends that cat-calling is harassment, respect a woman’s decision to decline your advances, offer to walk your female friends home.”

There are a number of small steps men can take to bring significant peace of mind to women. For example, crossing onto another street or steering away when you find yourself behind a woman at night can help ease our fears. Also, do not call out to a lone woman on the street, no matter the reason. All that is going to do is frighten her. Men need to understand that no matter their actual intentions, they should consider how their actions are going to be perceived by a woman who has been taught to expect the worst.

“The whole burden to keep ourselves safe and the onus to prevent anything from happening to us gets so tiresome, and it’s like a rite of passage for most women to worry about their safety,” Rahman said. “Without asking men to change their behaviour towards us, there is really no solution or progress to be made.”

A walk should not be burdensome, yet this is the reality for most women. And although stories like Sarah Everard’s are tragic, they are not surprising––women have had to adapt to a world that refuses to respect them. The risk of experiencing gendered violence is one taken by every woman whenever she leaves the house, even just to take a walk.

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