First memory. I’m 5 years old. My whole family’s traveling on the metro: my father, mother, brother and I. I’m being my usual squirmy self. My father looks at me and tells my mother over my head she should teach me how to behave properly when I’m wearing a dress.
I can tell you, it was a few years before I accepted to wear a dress again and shed my tomboy’s cloths.
Fastforward a few years. I must be 8 years old. My mother came to pick me up after a choir rehearsal. We’re taking the metro home and we have a change at the busy station Châtelet. I’m a curious child, and I keep looking around me. There’s such a diversity of people to observe, I find it fascinating. My Mom bends and speaks quietly to my ear: ‘you should not look other people in the eye, they could think you’re asking for trouble. When you’re on the metro, it’s always better to keep our eyes downcast, so that you don’t catch other people’s eyes’.
Again, let’s skip two years. I’ve turned 10. My body’s changing, my breasts are growing and I’m starting to have hairs under my armpits. I’m not paying too much heed: it doesn’t change the way I see myself. I’m still in primary school, I love to play ‘catch me if you can’. I’m a fast, strong runner and even the boys take care not to cross me. Right now, I’m playing on the swing in my grandfather’s garden, with my little brother and one of his friends. It’s getting warm, I take off my sweater without a care in the world. My brother’s friend lets out a yell of disgust: my hairs are hideous. My whole face is aflame, I shrug as if I didn’t care and ignore him. Some minutes later, I pretend to be cold and put my sweater back on again, even though I’m stifling and sweating heavily. I feel so ashamed.
Fastforward. I’m 14, I still love to sing. My new choir has a nightly rehearsal which finishes around 9 pm. The choirmaster is always late and by the time I’ve said my goodbyes to all my friends, the last bus is gone. My father insists on coming to pick me up, even though I’d love nothing more than to take the half hour’s walk home, which goes through two of the most secure districts in Paris, with policemen spending the night on patrols in front of Embassies.
The following year, when my brother turns 14 and starts to have night-time activities, he’s allowed to go home alone. When I complain, my father tells me to accept for a fact that I’m a girl, and being alone at night on the streets is dangerous for me. Life’s not fair, he tells me, and that’s the way things are.
Two years are gone by. I’m 16, on the metro with a group of friends. Female friends: I’m studying literature and most of my class is made up of female students. We’re going to watch a play and I speak excitedly with the others, when I feel someone closing in on me from behind. The train is far from bursting with people, there’s plenty of space. Why would someone get so close to me? Discretely, I take a look. It’s a big man who’s shadowing me. His groin presses against my butt. I stiffen and my mind goes blank. I can feel my face flaming and my heartbeat rushes. I try to put my handbag between me and the man. He changes the angle just so that he stays stuck to me. The conversation in the group abates as we exchange uncomfortable looks. The girls try to move so the man has to take a step. It doesn’t work and he stays pasted to me.
When it’s finally time to get off the train, a life-time later, I feel so relieved my head’s spinning. One of the girls whispers: ‘that man was so gross’. I shudder and nod.
Skipping ahead. I’m 19, going home after a late night class. I no longer tell my father what I’m doing and when. I let him believe I’m taking the bus home, when actually I prefer walking and enjoying the quiet night. The area is nice and wealthy. It’s a quarter past 10 pm, I’m really tired and envisioning all the homework I still have to do before I can hope to get some rest. A man coming the other way stops in front of me. He asks me to take him on a tour to visit my bedroom. I’m brutally jarred out of my thoughts and give him an incredulous look before managing to reply ‘No sorry. Have a good night’. Still dumbfounded I keep walking, taking care not to look back. I pull down on the cute short skirt my grandmother gifted me the week before. I just wanted to look nice, but I won’t be wearing this item of clothing again when I have to go home late at night.
I’m 21. I’ve just had dinner at my best friend’s place. I decided to wear a pretty new dress I bought for myself a few weeks ago. I’ve never worn it, but I know it fits me like a glove. It’s white with big pink flowers all over it, and it flows nicely over my forms. I wanted to show my friend I could sometimes make an effort and wear cloths other than jeans.
I get out of her apartment building and start walking purposefully home. I’m very used to the way. A few paces away a loud whistling makes me jump. I cast a quick cautious glance about. On the other side of the street, a van is parked. Its back doors are open, and I can make out someone’s shape out of the shadows. He moves and I see his big paunch, his unkept beard and leering smile.
I quickly look away and concentrate on the path before me. I keep my fast pace, doing my best not to change anything about the way I behave.
I’m 22. I had my last oral exam today and I’m wearing a dress and heels. Cute and formal. Life goes on as usual: I’m overrun with urgent tasks and stride purposefully towards the metro. I keep my head high and confident. A loud voice catches my attention on the side. A man, fiftyish years old, eyes my body up and down. He exclaims: ‘the girls are pretty around here, there’s nothing to be said’.
I retort with a derisive smile: ‘well if there’s nothing to be said, you should keep your mouth shut’.
The guy laughs and shrugs, saying ‘fair enough’.
A few weeks ago. I’ve just had dinner with a friend. We had a captivating conversation and I’m still enjoying the feeling of intellectual stimulation. Before heading home, I decide to take a walk around la Fontaine Saint-Michel. Three guys, obviously severely intoxicated, yell in good cheer: ‘come on lass, come with us for the rest of the night! We’ll show you a good time!’ Still in a good mood, I smile and reply loudly: ‘No thank you’. They laugh and shout again about how pretty my smile is. I keep going, amused in spite of myself.
The difference in my reaction to these unsolicited comments is simple: sometimes I am prepared, sometimes not. I’ve now learned that when I step outside, and I am alone late at night, or wearing sexy cloths, I need to remind myself to enter a warrior mind-set. I stop smiling, I stop meeting other people’s eyes. I stare straight in front of me, my head held high and my walk assertive and determined. I mentally prepare myself to rebuke any unwelcome comment, on guard and hyper aware of my environment.
Let me tell you something: having to adopt this attitude is exhausting. But then, my Dad warned me. Life’s not fair. I’m a woman, the streets are a dangerous place for me. That’s just the way things are.
Being quite headstrong, I still go out at night, I still wear sexy cloths on occasion. I gamble with my own safety, convincing myself that putting on a strong face will be enough to deter would-be harassers, or worst. So far, so good.