A Stanford University study of smartphone data has showed that in almost every country in the world, women walk disproportionately fewer steps each day than men. Intrigued by the findings, Talia Shadwell spoke to women about their walking habits. In those conversations, one issue arose again and again: personal safety. Women felt they could not walk as much as they would freely choose to because of concerns that they would be harassed or worse by men.
In response to Talia’s piece, women from around the world contacted the Guardian to share their stories: the experiences that led them to think twice about walking alone in the neighbourhoods where they live and work.
‘He grabbed my breast … it infuriates me that it stays with me’
Some 30 years ago I was walking with my dog one morning in woods near my home, within a few hundred yards of a main road. A man came up and asked directions to a nearby village. I began to explain to him when he grabbed one of my breasts, clutching it painfully. My reaction was to shout at him loudly and my dog jumped up at him, at which he fled. I noticed as he fled that he had a large stick with him. All these years later, even with my current dogs, I can’t walk in woods alone. That infuriates me: that the incident stays with me in that way, when it almost certainly doesn’t with my assailant.
‘I’ve been followed, attacked, spat on since school days’
I don’t think most men realise how common street harassment is in this country. I’ve been followed home, attacked, spat on, told to smile by men I don’t know, since school days. It’s pretty wearying feeling like you have to be constantly alert.
‘I saw he was staring straight at me’
It was a beautiful July evening and I decided to go for a walk along the river. I was apprehensive about walking alone but it was still light out and I knew the pedestrian paths would be busy with cyclists, joggers and dog walkers. I hadn’t been walking more than five minutes when I saw a teenage boy sitting on a bench ahead of me. Once I got ahead of him, I turned my head slightly so that he was in my peripheral vision, which is a trick I can only assume women all over the world use. I watched him get on his bike and pedal after me. He went to the left, following the path up a small hill, and then riding his bike parallel to me through a few scattered trees. Then I could see he had gotten off his bike and as I came around the other side of a tree I saw he was staring straight at me and had started to masturbate. Disgusted and furious, I turned around. He was already getting on his bike when I pulled out my phone to call 911.
I have always felt anxious while walking alone. I would love to be able to shake this fear that the night is not safe for me. It feels irrational because most of the time everything is fine. The problem is, everything is fine until it’s not.
‘In Cairo, harassment is a normal occurrence’
I live in Cairo where harassment is a normal occurrence for the majority of women. That has unfortunately kept me from walking in the streets and instead I always have to use my car or a taxi. I like to keep active and healthy; I even got a bicycle in hopes that it would be better than being on foot. But the harassment was actually worse. Trying to remove women from public space has a huge impact on where they stand in society: if they’re literally not visible out on the streets then it’s easier to ignore them in other places like the workplace or in politics. I took part in a protest for women’s rights shortly after the revolution took place in Egypt, and we were yelled at, harassed and kicked off the square by a group of men who didn’t want us to be visible. Unfortunately this type of systematic removal of women from public space still exists today in different forms.
‘Being accosted by a man with a knife scared me off the streets’
I live only 1km from where I work, but being accosted by a man with a knife has scared me off the streets. I drive instead. I love walking, but will only walk with someone else and even then I keep vigilant. But I’m one of the “lucky” ones; many women in my town have no alternative but to walk, at least part of the way, to their place of work, shops, church, classes or gym. It is a horrible thing to live with fear every moment on the street.
Janet, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
‘I was attacked walking home … the trust is gone’
Many years ago, in Darwin, I was attacked walking home from work, from behind, but fortunately I was a very strong girl and, after I got him off balance, he ended up on the ground and kicked in the jaw. That was just over 30 years ago but that altered my life – even today on a quiet street if a man approaches I cross the street until we have passed (sad, as the man is probably the nicest fellow). But the trust is gone. I don’t run or walk alone, I choose water sports for exercise and always have a very large, devoted dog with me.
‘I was followed by a man old enough to be my dad’
I was followed when I was about 19 by a man old enough to be my dad. I’d seen him watching everyone go their separate ways after the pubs and nightclub shut. He stalked me for about 10 minutes while I tried and failed to keep sight of a group of strangers up ahead. I’m lucky that all he did was grab me around the waist – when I panicked and started to shout he must have realised I wasn’t as drunk as he had hoped, and ran off. But the thought of what could have happened has stayed with me for years, and I’ve never walked anywhere alone at night since.
‘Every woman I know worries about this’
Every woman I know knows the litany, earnestly passed from mothers to daughters, aunts to nieces, big sisters to little sisters, postgrads to undergrads. How are you getting home? Do you have a plan? Take an extra tenner for a taxi. Who are you leaving with? Can someone walk you home? Let me know when you’re in the door home! Every woman I know sends the texts. “I’m in a black Merc 07 reg” “I’m leaving from O’Neills bar now, should be home by midnight” “Are you home?” “I’m home!”
Every woman I know thinks about this, talks about this, worries about this.
Not many men do. Some men know enough to say: “Will I walk you home?”, although some of them think it’s just one of those quirky cultural holdovers, like holding a door or pouring women’s wine first. A genteel, optional politeness. They don’t feel the terror scraping their bones as they grip their keys and wait for a taxi. We don’t walk home unless we walk together. We don’t walk home unless it’s only a few steps. We don’t walk home without texting our friend before, during, and after, like a prayer to safety. We don’t get to walk home.
Emer Emily, Dublin
‘I have to assess what I look like’
I got a job in downtown Denver. My male co-worker told me there is free parking six blocks away from our building. That blew my mind because the couple of blocks I walk from the $ 11-a-day parking lot to my building is already mentally exhausting for me. I have to assess what I look like today, how loud my heels are, how many men are on the sidewalk between me and my destination. I’ve been cat-called so many times while wearing (sometimes quite ugly) business-casual outfits that I even worry about walking across the street for lunch.
‘I still wind my keys around my fingers’
I used to walk the 50 metres from the tube to my flat in London with my keys wrapped around my fingers when I was younger, rushing and looking all around me every 30 seconds. When I got to the flat, I’d slam the door fast in case someone had been behind me and forced their way in. Now that I’ve got kids, I feel even less at ease … I’ll get a cab home rather than face a five-minute walk from the tube or bus stop. When I have to take the dog to the park at the end of our road before bed, I still wind my keys around my fingers and wait just outside under a streetlight, as I’m too terrified to go into it. I don’t remember there ever being a time in my life when I felt totally comfortable walking around alone after dark.
‘No walks at dusk to see a beautiful sunset’
I am so very careful about where I go after dark. No gas stations, no banks. No walks at dusk to see a beautiful sunset – unless my husband is with me. I’m 60 now, and afraid of being perceived as weak and attackable. It doesn’t matter how innocuous the men seem to think the catcalls and name-calling are. It feels threatening to women, and causes intense anxiety. Everywhere.
Anonymous, South Carolina
‘Once women get past the age of 40, they become invisible to men’
When I was a teenager a man put his arms around me and lifted me off my feet, which was quite alarming (I hit him on the head with my handbag and he dropped me). Now I’m in my 60s, I do walk around the city where I live late at night sometimes and I’m never approached or spoken to and don’t feel unsafe. Once women get past the age of 40 or thereabouts they become invisible to most men!
However, I love walking in the countryside but would never do this alone, which limits the times I can do it.
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