ELIZABETH DAY: In the wake of Sarah Everard's death, it's time we said: no more

4 weeks ago 4

Sarah's death seemed to tip the world on its axis so that everything went topsy-turvy for a while. All the women I spoke to felt the same. There was a heaviness in the air.

She did everything she was meant to. Wore bright clothes. Stuck to the busy main roads. Called her boyfriend on the way home. 

Didn't leave it too late. It was 9pm when she left her friend's flat. It was a time when women should be safe. And yet…

The tragedy of Sarah Everard's death lies in those last two words.

And yet she disappeared off the streets and was murdered. The prime suspect is a policeman, a person who is meant to keep us safe, a person we are meant to trust.

And yet.

Perhaps it was because I once lived in Clapham, and used to trudge home across the Common after dark. 

Perhaps it was because, during lockdown, we have all taken to walking a lot more, or going for daily runs, and I have become accustomed to seeing young women just like Sarah moving purposefully across parks and streets, in headphones and trainers.

Perhaps it was because one of Sarah's friends messaged me on Instagram appealing for help when she first went missing. 

Perhaps it's because I now live near the American Embassy in South London where the prime suspect is alleged to have worked as a member of the diplomatic protection group on the day of her disappearance.

For whatever reason, it all felt very close. Sarah's death seemed to tip the world on its axis so that everything went topsy-turvy for a while. All the women I spoke to felt the same. There was a heaviness in the air. 

Our hearts were collectively breaking. To think of the shattering grief her family, boyfriend and loved ones must be experiencing is almost unimaginable.

Many women will have a similar story. It's time to listen to them. I'm aware that men are victims too, but it's on a different scale. For men, street harassment is the exception. For women, it's the rule

Sorry seems an inadequate word. And yet it's all we have: I am so very sorry for their pain.

As women, we know what it is like to walk the streets and fear for our safety. It is, in many ways, a difficult thing to convey because we have become so used to it, that our behaviour now is instinctive.

But trust me when I tell you that almost every woman you know has experienced some form of harassment. It is why I never feel safe travelling abroad on my own, or having dinner in a restaurant by myself, because eight times out of ten I will be approached by a man assuming that my single-ness is an invitation.

It is why I, too, stick to busy, well-lit streets. I'll take a taxi rather than the last Tube (although that, too, is fraught with risk). It is why I note numberplates of suspicious vans or cars. 

It is why I have a sixth sense for my surroundings; why I panic when I hear footsteps behind me; why I will always cross the road or stop walking so a man can overtake me if he seems to be following me.

When I was 27, I was mugged by four men on the North London street where I lived. I was returning from a work trip and it was a winter's evening, so although it was only 7pm it was already dark.

They pushed me against a wall, grabbed my laptop and a bag of clothes. One of them hit me twice across the face with the flat of his forearm. I held on to my handbag. At some point, I fell to the ground and lost a shoe. They ran off, leaving me on the pavement.

I did not scream. I had always thought I would. But I couldn't believe it was happening to me, at the same time as I believed it completely. Because this was the risk of being a woman in a city, wasn't it? This was the price I paid for an independent life.

The police never caught the culprits. They told me the way a plastic bag I'd been carrying had been slashed, suggesting that one of the muggers had a knife. They took my handbag for DNA testing. I never got it back.

The prime suspect is a policeman, a person who is meant to keep us safe, a person we are meant to trust

In the days and weeks after the mugging, I felt scared. I also felt grateful. Grateful that it hadn't been worse. I was lucky.

I didn't once think to question why the men had done it.

That's just what happened, I thought. The responsibility was mine. I shouldn't have walked back alone, even though the attack had taken place 200 yards from my front door. I shouldn't have been carrying a laptop. I shouldn't have stayed silent. I shouldn't have fought to keep my handbag. It was never, 'They shouldn't have done that to me.'

In the end, I moved to a different part of London and bought a flat a few paces away from a main road. It felt safer that way.

Many women will have a similar story. It's time to listen to them. I'm aware that men are victims too, but it's on a different scale. For men, street harassment is the exception. For women, it's the rule.

And yet for decades, women are the ones who have been encouraged to change our behaviours.

I remember, as a teenager, a woman coming to our school to talk about personal safety. Walk with keys in your hand as a makeshift weapon, we were told, and learn some basic self-defence.

We were never taught to question why men wanted to attack us. It was just the way things were.

Girls were advised to be careful, but I'm not sure boys were ever given lessons in how not to be violent. Boys were never taught in school how to be kind, supportive and unthreatening in public spaces.

This female passivity was underlined in language. As the American gender activist Jackson Katz put it in a quote that went viral on social media last week: 'We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women… Even the term 'violence against women' is problematic. It's a passive construction. There's no active agent in the sentence. It's a bad thing that happens to women… Men aren't even a part of it!'

Of course, we do not mean all men when we speak of our experiences. We know there are many good men out there who cannot understand why others would perpetrate this kind of violence. 

At the same time, it is an unassailable fact that we live in a world where, on average, a woman is killed by a man every three days, and 80 per cent of women say they have been sexually harassed – a statistic that increases to 97 per cent for women aged 18-24, according to a poll released by YouGov this month.

It's difficult for any of us to walk the streets and know, simply by looking, which men are good and which are bad. The responsibility, therefore, is not one to be shouldered by women alone. It's a responsibility that has to be tackled by society as a whole. We need to hold perpetrators to account rather than victim-blaming.

We need to educate all genders on what safety in public space means. We need to interrogate the language we use. A woman is not simply attacked. Someone is attacking her.

Or, to put it another way: if you parked your car on a well-lit street, locked it and kept all valuables out of sight, then returned after a couple of hours to find the car stolen, your reaction would not be: 'Well, that's just the way of the world. It was my fault to think I could park here. Next time, I'll be more careful. Maybe I shouldn't have bought this particular car anyway…' Your reaction – rightly – would be anger that your property had been stolen.

And yet. We're not talking about cars or inanimate objects here. We're talking about people. 

We're talking about a woman who was murdered for the simple act of walking home. We're talking about Sarah Everard, who should still be alive.

We need to change. Because I don't want to live in a world where we accept the 'and yet'. I want to live in a world where we say 'no more'.

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