I can’t remember exactly when I began trying to intentionally leave traces of my own DNA to protect my safety.
For years now, whenever I sit in the back of taxis, I make sure to pull out a single strand of hair and leave it on the floor.Knowing there is a mark of being in the taxi somehow relaxes the anxiety and discomfort I feel, particularly on journeys I take alone or at night.
However long it’s been, it’s at least long enough that this habit seems, to me at least, unremarkable. Which is why, when my boyfriend asked me about my experiences of sexual harassment and safety, it took a while for me to realise the small actions I take – and that as a man he never would.
At the time many women were talking on social media about steps they take for their safety, I shared what we’d just spoken about, tweeting:
The majority of women who replied were inspired: “damn that’s smart. i’m gonna have to do that”, “holy shit, good idea”, “I ALWAYS rip a strand of my hair out in every taxi!!!! Done it for years!! Haven’t heard of others doing the same”.
We women are living in fear. For the majority of us, we can’t even recall what made us start this practice, it has just become a habit. There is a long-established sense of unceasing discomfort, accompanying our walks to school or work, trips to the bar, gigs, and taxi journeys alike.
The risk of harassment or attack has lingered in the periphery of our lives as women for long enough to grow stable and familiar; viewed as a mere part of the deal, an unlucky and unwelcome symptom of being a woman. Learning of other women employing similar “techniques” felt almost comforting – a timely reminder that half of the population also suffer the same symptom as you.
In taking active steps to protect ourselves – ripping out hair in my case, carrying keys between our fingers or sharing our live location with friends – we are already accepting and preparing for the eventuality of our safety being compromised, and facing a dangerous, even fatal, ending.
It’s important to acknowledge, as many men were of course eager to do, that this is #notalltaxidrivers. But interestingly, that was never the point, nor was it ever the belief. I do not think every taxi driver is going to murder me and that my piece of hair will triumph in the investigation into my homicide. But I do think that the risk, no matter how low, is still high enough to justify my small, cautious act.
Disparity in the way men and women go about their daily lives means most men have no concept of the unease women live with, making the regular practices of women like me unintelligible and ridiculous to many men. It also often means brave and loud proclamations by women face dismissal and disrespect. Whether it’s as a result of our own past experience, or the amalgamation of seeing and hearing it happen to other women, we all carry the weight of that 97% statistic.
I do not think every taxi driver is going to murder me and that my piece of hair will triumph in the investigation into my homicide. But I do think that the risk, no matter how low, is still high enough to justify my small, cautious act.
For some men, conversations like those surrounding my tweet inspired a sensitivity not yet uncovered. This sensitivity means the role, even if passive, that all men play in creating the discomfort women face can be acknowledged. Crossing to the other side of the road when it’s dark, confronting other men when a woman is clearly uncomfortable, and everything else man can do, can only happen if there is a willingness to listen to women’s experiences and learn, and this is only possible with men’s acceptance of male privilege.
The men who call me and other women “dramatic” and “paranoid” for taking steps to protect ourselves typify what’s wrong with the way we talk about violence against women. Instead of confronting the epidemic of misogynistic abuse which necessitates precautions like mine, we get distracted debating whether or not the small precautions we take are themselves “unnecessary” or “irrational”.
This misdirected criticism comes as a consequence of both the inequality in exposure to sexual harassment but also the interpretation of a men vs. women line, which leads non-sexually harassing men to spend the entire conversation hailing #notallmen and victimising themselves, instead of actually supporting the cause.
It has always been good vs bad, everyone vs sexual assaulters, not men vs women.
Now is the time for good to band together, listen to those brave enough to speak out, accept privilege, reflect on our own behaviour – and devote ourselves to ensuring the next generation of women exit a taxi with the same amount of hair they entered with.
Lois Olivia is a freelance journalist and student. Follow her on Twitter at @loisoliviaj
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