The Soapbox: Fear Me If You Do Not Respect My Right To Walk Down The Street In Peace

Before the movement to end street harassment really gained steam, I penned an essay about my childhood experiences as a poor, Black girl. In the piece, I detailed an interaction I had, at 11 years old with a group of men more than two times my age, where they publicly sexually harassed me while on my neighborhood street. The piece expressed the hurt, anger and rage that is buried so deep within me after decades of feeling unsafe in this world just because I am woman. This was the story of how I learned that my entire being was defined, in this society, by my sexuality. Not my intelligence, not my humor, not my wit, but access to my body.

I looked back on that piece and felt all the fears and anxiety that I have so long tried to cast aside and dismiss. Fears that resurfaced because of stories that two women were brutally attacked within the past couple of days (one of whom lost her life and the other who thankfully is expected to survive), by men who sought to gain access to their sexuality but were denied. Men who invaded the personal physical and emotional space of those women, without any permission or invitation, and murdered them simply because they were made aware of the fact that their advances were not welcomed.

A feeling weighed on my chest, because I have been in that scenario countless times; my safety and pride at the whims and mercy of an unknown man. And despite my cries for help and human dignity, the men in my life often dismissed these occurrences as harmless or trivial. However, as I have always known and as these two stories illustrate, they are not.

The physical and emotional scars women bear as a result of constant harassment in public spaces cannot be seen by men. They are hidden beneath angry, dismissive looks and even intellectual pleas for support.

For years, I walked with my eyes cast down at the sight of a man: an action that, during the times of slavery, was demanded of Blacks while sharing spaces with Whites. An action that symbolizes fear, inferiority and subservience. I crossed the road to avoid large groups of men and their comments. I accepted warnings to not wear certain clothes, because if it somehow provoked men to belittle or attack men, that would be my fault.

I carried on in this way because I understood my existence and my position in this world has never been equal to that of men. I internalized every message that I should be fearful, subjugated and allowed that fear to control my psyche.

And then, within moments, that fear in me died as I envisioned those two women’s struggle for their right to live. I am still alive and I refuse to live in fear. I am still alive and I refuse to be a passive participant who stands idly as such mindless oppression and violence continues. I am still alive and I will not allow the deaths of these women to be dismissed.

I will no longer cast my eyes downward to avoid eye contact with a man or cross the street to avoid male gaze. Men do not own this world and certainly do not own the right to dictate my freedom to proudly, comfortably and fearlessly move through it. I will not remain silent as demeaning comments are sexual comments are barked at me or other women in public. I will publicly wear whatever outfit I am inclined to don. And I will not wait for men to bestow that right upon me.

Today, I reclaim my right to equality as a woman; the right to my autonomy and safety. And I will fight for women’s right to exist, in peace, as equals to men in all spaces, private and public.

Those who do not respect that right should now fear me. They should fear the movement spearheaded by powerful, compassionate women and supported by strong, empathetic men, that will put an end to street harassment and violence.

Fear the woman walking alone down the street in the mini-dress, with her head held high. She — and the men in her life — could be any one of us.