About a month ago, on a Saturday night, a man attacked me in the Paris metro. In the seventh arrondisement, a very chic and expensive area, no less. I had cursed at him as he and his friends whistled and looked my friend and I up and down. He grabbed the front of my dress and my arms and started yelling at me. Why had I said that, he demanded. I had had a few drinks and I was so shocked and confused that my French came out unclear. I tried to say because I didn’t want to talk to you. But what I really wanted to say was because I knew you were not a nice person as you’re demonstrating now. And because I didn’t like the way he was behaving towards my friend and I. When men whistle at you in the metro, and make sleazy comments, they don’t think they are going to seduce you. In my mind it does one of two things. It either implicitly states that you are an object and there to be perused or used by them. And the second thing it does, although it is not unrelated, is it scares you. It’s meant to scare you. It’s meant to say that despite laws or years of women’s rights assertions, somehow he might still be able to “get” me.
I didn’t apologise. Je suis désolée didn’t leave my lips by choice.
I shouldn’t have been rude and maybe I should have worn a longer dress. Something more conservative? Yet never ever is it a women’s fault that she is attacked. That was him. That was his choice. I can avoid it and discourage it, but the point is I shouldn’t have to. You may think me irresponsible, but I ought not to have had to have been responsible for the behaviour and choices of others.
My friend grabbed his phone and threatened to break it. She was smart and quite brave. It was at least two minutes before any other men or women arrived off another train. It was late at night. Yet it was frightening how alone we were for that whole stretch of time.
It was interesting that he was not at all interested in coming at my friend. It was me that he was angry with. I prefer that it was me. I would have been too upset and helpless watching my friend being hurt. Why was it he was so angry with me?
I had insulted him when I said f*** off. He had insulted me. I didn’t like being ogled. I didn’t like being an object for his viewing pleasure or the butt of his sexual jokes. You might ask why then do I wear short dresses? And you’re right to ask. I’m not sure. It’s a contradiction, to be sure. Fashion is one reason. Actually attracting boys is another – but only a particular kind of boy. And even then I get uncomfortable if they are looking me up and down. I didn’t look trashy – I had a pretty, classy dress on. Short with heels, but a blazer and low key makeup. I was going to a club. But, the man in the metro did not have a licence to pull the front of my dress and grab my arms and neck. He might be allowed to whistle, but I don’t have to like it.
I think he was so angry because it seemed like I thought I was better than him. Actually I was thinking and feeling what I said above – scared, angry about being whistled at, confused about women’s fashion. To him it may have seemed like a rejection of his… manhood or his attractiveness perhaps. But he couldn’t really have thought that whistling was a wooing technique. So this doesn’t quite square up. On a deeper level, perhaps he thought it was a rejection of his self-worth. He may have seen it as though I didn’t think him worthy to talk to me or look at me. He was black. I am an Anglophone. Did I seem bourgeoisie – a white, non-French girl in the seventh arrondisement?
Virginia Woolf has written that men have the motivation to win wars and run countries, or even civilize the world, because their self-worth is kept intact by defining themselves as superior always to at least half of the people in a room. Women. The focus is not so much our inferiority, but their superiority. Ego is important to men. In her poetic and old-fashioned way Virginia was right to say that men’s self-confidence is somehow wrapped up in how women react to them and how they perceive themselves vis-à-vis women. I think in France there was a racial or even lingual layer to my experience.
I thought he might hit me. A blood nose wouldn’t have killed me – I mean it could have been worse. I shouldn’t like to be raped. Ever. But it wasn’t close to that. The power of the suggestion of rape was what weighed in his favour. It was what made me say f*** off in the first place. This suggestion in his whistle was what caused me to react. He didn’t like that I thought he didn’t really have that power. Again I suggest that whistling at women, the way some men do, is about scaring them or about power. Not always, but often. And rape is about power.
I chose not to hit him. I could have. Yet he didn’t need an excuse to get more violent. He did not seem to have many scruples about violence. I started to pretend to cry. I thought this might make him ease up. I thought this might be what he wanted to see or hear – it might seem to him that he had won and reasserted his authority. He eventually gave in to my friends threats to smash his phone. He knew he couldn’t take it much further before someone else arrived on the scene. Although he had attacked me it does seem I had been right – he didn’t have that full power to do anything to me.
I was so angry afterwards. Shaky too, but I never felt he would get away with much more than he did. A French friend of mine called me. He was concerned. He said variously “I told you” and “I wish I had been there to protect you” during the kind phone call. I texted him later to say thank you, but these comments made me even more frustrated that Saturday night. I don’t need protection. I like to think this. I looked after myself and lived alone in Paris. I was an exchange student. Yet, physically, to some extent I really do need protection sometimes. A boy to walk down the streets with at 3am. I have to accept that. Or the only way to protect myself is not to go out at night. To learn judo perhaps, but that doesn’t deter the physical attack in the first place. It just means if the man in the metro had actually tried to do worst I could have fought back. Nails and biting are sufficient given that I wouldn’t have gone anywhere worse than the metro whilst I was in Paris.
I was angry more so because this seems to still be a way to treat women. I had actually got very upset earlier in the week, with a male friend who laughed at me as I got heated about a feminist argument. I study politics – this is my life. I think the whole experience that Saturday night in the metro made me upset as I linked it into a wider web of maltreatment that many of my fellow females have experienced. I put it into a bigger picture of rape as a weapon in war and honour killings, stonings – the things that are so important in my studies. This justified why I got so upset with my friend earlier in the week. There’s nothing funny about the way men look at you in the street or the metro sometimes. There’s nothing funny about the fact that the primary responsibility for bringing up my children will still rest on my shoulders when I am a mother in the future. It’s true that that can also be a personal issue to work out between me and my future partner, but I will struggle to balance a career and motherhood. I think about it even now as I finish my degree, knowing that my male friends don’t. I’m pretty sure my friend who had laughed at my flustered face earlier that week wouldn’t like me as much as he did if my hair didn’t shine and my dresses didn’t fit the way they do. I am a contradiction. It’s painful to navigate my way through that. My choices are mine, but the shape of the world I make them in is not all of my making.
Why are women still the primary objects of violence, the focus of a man’s ego, the most disadvantaged groups in war and poverty? I won’t see the man who attacked me again, nor would I recognise him if I did, so it is best personally to put it in the past. My only direct follow up is journalism. Journalism has always been my strongest weapon in any situation. What rocked me about being attacked and why my friend had unnerved me earlier in the week is an extrapolation of the reasons I started to study politics three years ago. I have the hope that good politics can make some classes of men less angry and can make women freer from needing protection. Also I hope that women can become freer to dress as they want without fear or reproach. Yet, freer from that way of dressing today that makes them the objects of men’s gaze they both do and don’t want to be. Like me.