Sunday, June 13, 2010

Feminist Fiction: Walking While Woman

Sometimes I write random fiction short stories. This is one. It was feminist-y so I posted it. While totally fictional, the feelings invoked come from my experience, as most women can relate to the risks of walking while woman.

She passed this area nearly every day and every day it was the same. It didn't matter what she wore. That was her first mistake, thinking that it was her fault for wearing a short skirt, the first time it happened. Soon, however, she realized it didn't matter. In the winter, she wore a long parka and loose fitting, boy cut jeans. Her shape, like everyone on the street, was a formless blob. But even then the comments kept up. "Girl, you looking good" was replaced with "Baby, you cold? I can warm you up."

So came spring and she surrendered to the impending warmth and just wore what she wanted. She realized the fault wasn't hers and she knew with complete certainty that covering herself with uncomfortable layers wouldn't make her feel any safer in the streets.

It wasn't just the area, either, although the stretch in front of her school tended to be the worst. She knew this because she had tried other routes. For a while she felt more safe, but by the third day or so the inevitable happened and a comment was made blocks away from the usual spot. It was in that moment that she came to terms with the fact that it wasn't her clothes and it wasn't the route (so there was no sense in wasting 30 minutes going the long way.) It wasn't even just her, either, because things were said to her friends and her mom. It just seemed to be the liability of walking while woman.

It hadn't always been like this for her. Just a few years ago, when she was first in Junior High, she was nearly invisible in the streets. People would busily rush by her and not bat an eye. Back when she was still outside the adult world, she often lamented the fact that she was just some kid walking to school with her brother. One of hundreds, in the street.

But over the course of a few short years, something happened. She didn't feel invisible anymore. In fact, it got to the point where she felt constantly under observance, as if her body had become public domain for eye trolling. While it was hard enough to clumsily navigate her way into an adult female body, the added stress of having said changing body publicly ogled and discussed was almost too much to bear.

The first time it happened to her, she didn't know what to do. On the subway, an older man in a business suit sat next to her and she could sense that he was scanning her body invasively. He leaned over to her, placed his hand on an uncovered knee inches from the hem of her mini skirt and said in a hushed tone, "My God, you are beautiful." His hot breathe felt greasy and oppressive on her neck. She scooted away slightly and did what one is taught to do when given a compliment. She said nervously, "thank you," even though every instinct in her body was setting her into full flight mode. Luckily, her stop was next.

It terrified her. His words on their surface were innocent, but she intuitively knew that something wasn't right. She had many times before imagined a similar scenario with the cute boy in her study hall, but in that scenario, they were on a date or at a party, and it would always happen after a long, painfully soul bearing conversation, in which both of them admit it was love at first sight.

In these scenes, in her mind, she felt an excited rush and was totally safe. But the first time someone who wasn't family told her she was beautiful, it wasn't like that at all. It was terrifying and the only rush she felt was of disgust.

It was like that day, she got it. She knew why her mom sometimes told her to "keep walking" when some man called "ladies" at them. She suddenly had a flood of memories: Her mom calling men creeps or telling one of them to fuck off. She honestly hadn't considered what was really going on before. But she also hadn't felt this type of fear yet, and she didn't know what it was all about.

That day, she saw her mom in a new light. A few weeks before, they had a fight over curfew. Her older brother could stay out much later than she could when he was her age. She was so indignant at this fact and thought her mom was being incredibly unfair. How could she treat her own daughter so blatantly different? In the argument she was proud to threw the word discrimination in her mom's face.

All her mom said was that "it's just different," with a heavy sigh.

At the time, she couldn't have been madder at her mom. But thinking about it now, after feeling that fear, she knew what the difference was. Her brother was never taking the risk of walking while woman. Her mom didn't make the rules; the rules were always there, and they were always unfair.

This was almost a year ago now, and since then the shock of the comments wore off with their increased frequency. The shock wore off, but the fear remained the same. The city she had once loved started to feel untrustworthy and unseemly. While she had now learned to not let them control her clothes or her route, they still held the power of fear over her. She couldn't shake the sense of incredible injustice. Injustice when her brother stayed out late or happily grabbed his book bag and shouted to them "I'm going out."

Did he ever feel unsafe? Did he ever make someone feel unsafe? Did any of this ever cross his mind?

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