If you’re a woman who lives, or has ever lived, in a city, then you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say that when I walk alone at night, I usually walk “with my keys in my hand”. I’m not just holding them because digging them out of my bag when I get to my front door is annoying. I am carrying my keys in a particular way: the lanyard is wrapped tightly around my hand and the points of three different keys poke out between my knuckles. If you’re a woman who lives in the city, you’ll know why I do this, and why you’ve likely done it yourself.
Because you’re scared that someone will attack you, and you need your first punch to cause as much pain as it possibly can. Most of us, thankfully, will not be attacked while walking home at night, but still. You are scared, and you walk with your keys in your hand.
I don’t live my life in perpetual fear. I like Vancouver and I love East Van in particular. But it doesn’t take so very much to compel me to put my keys in my hand. A dark street. The lateness of the hour. A vacant lot.
A couple of years ago, when I lived alone at my last apartment, I was heading home late on the number 16 bus. There are usually strange characters on this bus and I’ve had (or overheard) some pretty strange conversations. The conversations are usually funny and I forget them as soon as they’re over. But sometimes, I just get a feeling. A feeling that the attention directed at me is no longer safe for me. That night was such a night. A young man sat next to me on the bus and started to talk to me. Which is fine. It’s a free country. But there was an intimate tone in his questions that was too personal, that wanted to know too much about me. And it was late, and I was tired, and I had been drinking, all things that weaken me and make me feel more vulnerable. When I pulled the bell and excused myself at my stop, the guy said, “Oh, is this where you live? We should hang out.” I said, “No” and got off the bus. I tucked my keys between my knuckles and ran all the way home.
Of course, I made it home safely and never saw that person again. Reading this anecdote, you might not understand why such a seemingly harmless interaction would frighten me so much. But somehow, it’s been ingrained in me that a woman’s survival depends on reading tone, and trusting her intuition. Nine times out of ten, the person who seems inappropriate and threatening to her is merely inappropriate. But the tenth–there’s a good chance that tenth could be a Threat. And if she’s unlucky, that Threat could be an Attacker. Problem is, we have no way of knowing who to protect ourselves from, so we have to act on our red flags, whenever we see them. I don’t know where I learned these lessons. I grew up in the country and never had this issue. I can’t remember my mom or any other authority figures teaching me these skills. But when I moved to the city, there they were, waiting for me to need them.
So when I’m walking alone at night, I walk with my keys in my hand. I eye every stranger I pass. I eye cars too, to make sure they aren’t slowing down or stopping beside me. When my friends and I part ways on a cab or in the bus one of us asks the other to “text me when you get home”. Do I feel like I’m too paranoid? Do I feel a bit crazy? Do I feel like I’m overreacting?
Sometimes. To be honest, I know that my little precautions would likely do very little to help me if someone did want to attack me. But I’ve got to do something. Because if I didn’t, and something happened to me, I know people would ask questions, not of my attacker, but of my actions: Why was she walking alone? Why did she talk to strangers? Why didn’t she do more to protect herself? The truth is, I would ask myself those questions too: How silly could I have been to think nothing bad would happen to me?
When I was in my first year of university, I took a political philosophy course, and my conception of myself as a female in society exploded. For the first time I actually entertained the idea that I might be oppressed. Not by any purposeful forces, not by any men in my life who were trying to keep me down. But by the simple fact that I had to make different choices from my male peers. I had to have a “buddy system” for walking home from bars. I had to be careful who I spoke to. I had to make sure I didn’t get so drunk that I didn’t have my wits about me (unlike my classmates of the male sex). And, of course, I learned to walk with my keys in my hand. Nothing has hurt me so far, or even greatly inconvenienced me, but it isn’t fair, is it?
Obviously, my anxiety is manageable, and until the onus stops being on me to prevent my own potential assault, it’s just the way I’ll feel sometimes. But I am at the most harmless end of a huge spectrum of threat and violence that spans through muggings and rapes, all the way to the vicious beating and gang rape that left a Delhi woman dead in December. And I want off before I move any further along it.
This International Women’s Day, that is my wish. Take us off. Take us all off the spectrum. This request is from someone who exists on the best possible part of it she could possibly be located on, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to go any further. Actually, I can, a little. Just enough to scare me. Just enough to make me walk with my keys in my hand. And it’s stupid, and I’m ashamed of myself, and I really don’t know why.