By: Maya Shehata
Trigger Warning: Mention of sexual assault and gender-based violence.
Any of us could’ve been Sarah.
Last Wednesday, just two days after International Women’s Day, on her way home from a friend’s house, Sarah Everard disappeared, and only a couple of hours ago, her remains were found. The worst part was that as I read her story, I was devastated, but I wasn’t surprised, nor was I shocked. I had read the same story when Mariam Mohammed was dragged across the asphalt then killed on her way home from work when Katrina Verano was sexually assaulted, then strangled on her way home from a run when Sydney Sutherland disappeared on her way home after a jog, and the list doesn’t end there. Mollie Tibbetts, Vanessa Marcotte, Ally Brueger, Sarmistha Sen, Laura Smither, Chaundra Levy, Wendy Martinez… how many more? How many more women have to leave their houses one day to never come back for the world to realize that this is the reality for women?
The sad truth is that any woman reading this could’ve been on the list of women above. We all go to school, work, go on jogs or runs, or go out to buy groceries, so how are we going to make sure that this doesn’t happen again? For years now, we’ve focused on telling women “don’t wear revealing clothes,” “wear comfortable shoes at night,” “always keep your guard up,” but how many more women have to die after following these extensive guidelines for us to stop blaming women finally, and start holding men accountable? I remember my first conversation about this being with my mother at the mere age of seven when she wouldn’t let me sleepover at a friend’s house. I remember throwing a tantrum in frustration; I was responsible, so why couldn’t I be trusted to sleepover at a friend’s house? Then I sat and listened to her talk to me about the stories of girls who’d gone to sleepovers and never come back the same, “it’s not you who I don’t trust, it’s the world around you.” Her words have forever been engraved in my mind, but I couldn’t help but wonder, “if it isn’t me who isn’t trustworthy, why do I have to carry the consequences of the messed-up world around me?” Years later, I stood frozen on the bathroom floor, staring into the eyes of a man who was staring at me through the opening he had cut out in the ceiling to watch girls change. It took staring into his cold eyes to make me realize that my mom was right; we do live in a messed up world. What we didn’t realize, though, was that protecting girls wouldn’t change that. Whether we wear comfortable shoes and take precautions like Sarah, or we wear conservative clothing like Mariam, bad people will do bad things, and protecting girls will not change that, but raising better boys will.
Now here is the part where I’d usually insert a couple of statistics to help you understand the severity of the issue, but honestly, I’m tired of seeing rape survivors reduced to nothing but a statistic. I’m tired of seeing the domestic violence statistics through the roof, while everyone ignores that it's happening. And I’m so tired of seeing the number of women dying at the hands of men peak while everyone turns a blind eye. So I’m going to make this the part where I ask you to talk to the woman closest to you, if she’s comfortable, ask her if she’s gone through an experience of the sort. Ask her if her heart starts racing while she’s walking back to her car at night. Ask her whether or not she holds her keys between her fingers when she hears footsteps behind her. Ask her how many times she rethinks what she’s wearing depending on who she’ll be around or where she’s going. And I’ll start us off with some experiences women in my community shared:
“I cannot say what time of night the event occurred, but I do know one thing; I felt my heart explode. I heard it crack into an explosion inside every inch of my body. At the age of thirteen, I was raped by two men in my dark bedroom, and then they threatened to kill me if I told anyone. Honestly, I wanted to vomit. My guts turn in knots, and I feel disgusted every time I think how someone could be so heartless. I was silent for two years until I moved to another country, and then I got the courage to tell my parents. I went into therapy suffering from severe depression, PTSD, and anxiety. It’s been two and a half years since I started therapy, and my depression and anxiety have been bearable recently, but my PTSD hasn’t changed.”
“When I was in a taxi, he sexually assaulted me on the car journey home. He touched me even when I pushed him away, grabbing on my thighs, caressing them, and trying to get underneath. He took my hands from my lap and put them in his mouth, sucked on them as I was crying, begging for him to stop. I remember staring out of that window for 2 straight minutes while he started touching me. Then it hit me, and the tears were just running down my face while my whole body sat frozen still. After a few minutes in shock, I clicked and started pushing him away, trying to protect myself and get out of the car. His face haunts me every day. He’ll be in my memory for the rest of my life.”
“From the age of 13-16, I was molested almost every week by my uncle. This year, in my final year of high school, it finally stopped, not because he decided to “become a better person” but because I stopped going to any family gatherings.”
These are women all around us; they are our mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, wives, colleagues, and friends. These experiences are not isolated cases, and we need to stop treating them as though they are. Just to be clear, I’m well aware that it’s not all men, but if there’s anything that you should’ve taken away from all of this is that it is all women. All women have that fear at the back of their minds; we fear ending up like one of the women above. So if you’re saying “not all men” because you don’t think this issue applies to you, then be one of the men empowering women. Be one of the men speaking up when you see someone overstepping boundaries or the man who helps when you see a woman who’s uncomfortable. Be the man who listens...because we all know it’s not all men, but now let’s work together to make sure it’s not all women either, so now let me ask again, how many more?