Being a woman means always being on guard. Growing up, we are armed with safety tips. It’s almost a rite of passage to sit at your mother’s feet as she gives you all the warnings.
“Don’t eat or drink anything you didn’t see get opened. Don’t pick up your drink after leaving it unattended. Don’t go out alone at night.” But there is only so much those warnings can do.
They don’t protect you when your abuser is family. They don’t protect you at school from predatory teachers and fellow students. And even in the clubs where these rules are more applicable, they don’t protect you from being groped. The larger problem is that they put the responsibility on the shoulders of the wrong people.
While we are teaching girls to be safe, who is teaching men and boys not to touch us and molest us?
There will always be a girl who doesn’t follow all the rules. She deserves to be unharmed, too. In August this year, BBC Africa did a story on Strictly Silk, a women and nonbinary people-only dance night in Kenya originated by the Nest Collective, a Nairobi based arts collective. The Strictly Silk dance nights have been such a success that the 4th edition which also marks their one year anniversary is slated for later this month.
And in Nigeria, Wine and Whine NG – a platform created by Damilola Odufuwa and Odunayo Eweniyi to provide a safe space for women – hosted an event called Wine, Whine and Whine (W3) on November 30 to overwhelming responses.
The social media response to both events in feminist circles was enthusiastic. Many women commented on the relief they felt knowing they didn’t have to worry about spiked drinks or being touched inappropriately while they danced. Many men, on the other hand, were less than impressed. Feeling decentred for probably the first time in their lives, the distress in the reactions was almost comical.
There were arguments that men could also create spaces for themselves that excluded women, completely ignoring that such spaces exist already. Wherever you go, women who frequent night clubs have one complaint – groping. So many men bristle at the audacity of women to have fun without them and will try to insert themselves where they are not wanted. Very often, this translates to grabbing women and assaulting them.
The idea of a space where women are free to enjoy themselves without looking over their shoulders or crowding together for safety is an appealing one. But as much as I love these spaces, I also hate that they are needed in the first place.
It is terrible that as women, we have to carve out exclusive spaces for ourselves because mainstream spaces do not guarantee our safety.
We should be just as free as men are to dance at parties or use the gym or even jog in our neighbourhoods. Every once in a while, someone asks this question on Twitter. “If men were to disappear one day, what is the first thing you would do?” The answers are always heartbreakingly simple. We would go take walks at night. We would go out in those little dresses we love but never wear because we’re afraid to. We would go about our daily lives without looking over our shoulders.
In a few countries, including Egypt, women-only cars exist on the railway system. This is how prevalent sexual harassment and assault are. Even on public transport there is a threat. It is not hyperbole when we say we are not safe anywhere. It is the truth. And as beneficial as they are, women-only spaces are not enough. There is a limit to their reach and when we step out of them, we step back into danger.
So ultimately, we need to see radical change everywhere. We need a world that believes victims of gender-based violence, a world where perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes. We need a world that is safe for women. We should not have to isolate ourselves to ensure our safety. The world belongs to us, too.
Feature Photo by The Nest Collective