By Sara Assad-Mannings
Sarah Everard was taken minutes from my home; on a street I drive down multiple times a week and have walked down more times than I can count. It’s terrifyingly close to home and we are all too aware of how easily it could have been one of us. But it wasn’t, and more than anything my heart hurts for Sarah and all who love her, and all women killed by violence and the ones who love them.
At first I found myself jarred by the outpouring of sharing. I couldn’t figure out why I was uncomfortable, it almost made me angry. I questioned myself; maybe it was because I thought there ought to be room for grief, or that it wasn’t the time to be centring ourselves when this had happened to somebody else, or maybe that I was measuring peoples suffering. The more conversations I’ve had and the more space I’ve given myself from socials I realise it isn’t any of these things; it’s triggering. I am being forced to digest the knowledge that it could have been me. Not in an ‘I could have been walking there’ kind of way. Not even in an ‘as women we have a shared experience’ kind of way, although these are both absolutely true. In that it has made me reflect on the situations I have put myself in and feel humiliated, and then I realise I am sat here telling men not to blame women all while blaming myself. I have been trapped by the problem and now I have to look inward. I reflect on situations that I passed off at the time and can look on now as harassment, and as assault. Even in writing this I feel insurmountable shame and fraud, as if being drunk or feeling pressured or the fact it was a night out means I still gave some form of consent invalidating any uneasiness I may have felt. We are manipulated to blame ourselves and strip men of accountability and I have unconsciously been doing it for years. It’s exposing as I ask myself – have I been a victim? Have I been a bystander? Am I part of the issue?
Since I was a teenager, I have been screamed at for not dancing with a guy, bum grabbed, boobs groped, hugs forced on me, kisses launched at me, pushed into walls, hit, seen men masturbate on the street, pressured to perform sexual acts, catcalled, unwarranted d*ck pics, sex chat, looks, remarks – I remember when I was 16 sat on the front row at a comedy night and the first joke the male comedian made, was about my tits and meeting him round the back after the gig. Granted, this man did not know I was 16 but I was clearly not old enough to have those jokes directed at me and that’s kind of beside the point. And the worst thing is, most of the time my response to all of this is to laugh it off. I never question it or gave much thought to how sinister it really is and I have continually given these men excuses. I understand that the onus is on men to look inward now and I wholeheartedly support this, but what about the women (myself included) who haven’t looked completely inward themselves yet? This is an extremely upsetting and sensitive process and patience is required. This is also a space that does not always feel welcoming to non-white, non-cis women and so speaking on this comes with a sense of imposition.
However, it is time I tried. I get it; harassment can be difficult to define. Most things are difficult to define when it comes to emotions, which is why clarity is essential. Ask clear questions and give clear answers. I have had uncomfortable conversations with some of the men in my life, but I know how important it is and I have never hidden away from a challenging debate. I hope these conversations will continue to happen, as much for my growth as for men’s, because for change to happen the conversations need to be revisited over and over again, from every angle, gently. This is truly what I believe.
It is too simplistic to look at things as purely good or bad and I do believe that the vast majority of men are good, but a lot have some questionable ideas about the role of women in their lives and use harmful language towards them. We all have men in our lives, men that we trust, and rightly so. There are some beautiful, kind hearted, genuinely brilliant men out there – I have some in my own life. These men have never harmed a woman, nor do they know someone who’s harmed a woman, so it feels like somewhere, someone is lying or the line is completely unclear. Or maybe it is clear and they are just too afraid to call it out when they see it being crossed. Fear of judgement and shame is silencing us all and it’s putting lives at risk. It is important to acknowledge as well, that this is an intersectional conversation that all women need to be included in. There is still a narrative that men are instinctively more primitive, acting from a primitive place and don’t know how to control themselves. Where we as women are conditioned to control ourselves and manage our expectations as custom. There is a narrative that women should know better how to carry themselves. But by this argument, there are men who should know better how to carry themselves and not harm us.
There is a narrative that somehow men are entitled to women’s space, while women are not entitled to safety. The disparity is alarming and it’s not new. It is of course, time that men listened, and listening can be hard because listening forces you to look at yourself and chances are, it will make you feel shame. But I ask that you process that shame, because I have dealt with shame at the hands of some men throughout my life and I am tired.
This past week has brought into focus a system of power or ‘firm’ that none of us have any comprehension of or control over and that is killing us. This past year has thrown up any trust we had left in institution. We must question government, we must question the police force, we question the justice system, and we must question media, because these are still not ours. And now, we must question our men. We don’t feel safe.
It is okay not to know, I don’t know. This is one for the women who feel triggered, overwhelmed or absolutely lost, it is okay to not feel completely empowered yet, I am still learning. Be gentle with yourself, and do not judge yourself. It was not your fault, it is not your fault. We are still strong women.
Sara Assad-Mannings is a British-Palestinian in South London. She is a baker, writer and advocate for social justice. You can follow her journey on Instagram.