Reclaim the Night

Why are we still not out of the dark ages when it comes to women living their lives after nightfall?

Article by Chloë Maughan | 03 Nov 2016

Late one night, the doorbell rang. I’m typically not inclined to answer past midnight, as it reads all too often like the beginning of a horror film, but having not heard my housemate arrive home, I ignored my better judgment and shuffled across the hall to the front door.

I stopped short. Through the translucent glass I could see a figure I didn’t recognise. A man. Broad and tall.

I was fully aware he’d seen me, but not wanting to play out the plot of Scream that particular night, I ducked and crawled back to my room. He had to be in the wrong place. He’d go away.

Some minutes passed. The doorbell rang again. I stood my ground, or more aptly cradled it, as I peered at the window from a crack in my door. He started pounding at the window.

I grabbed my phone and typed to anyone I thought might still be awake: “There is a man trying to get into my house and I don’t know what to do.” At least that way, when I couldn’t be found the following morning, someone would at least know where to look.

After ten minutes things went quiet. I left my watching post and armed myself with my duvet, and lay in the light until exhaustion pulled me to sleep.

I awoke, safe, light still on. At breakfast I told my flatmate of my ordeal. “Shit,” she said, sadness filling her eyes, “I fell asleep waiting for pizza.”

Often when I recount this tale, I tell it as a humorous story, in which my nervous nature is the punchline. Silly woman fears murderer, accidentally leaves pizza man stood out in the cold. But the story is about something much more sinister...

A state of hypervigilance

Talk to your friends about their night time routines, and very quickly you’ll see a pattern emerging. Women talk of walking with keys clenched between fists and dialling fake calls to deter strangers. They work on de-feminising themselves, by tucking their hair into the collar of their shirt and standing broader. They place headphones in their ears, with no music. They are forever protecting their boundaries, and forever in a state of hypervigilance.

This constant state of fear is why, for a lot of women, it hurts when men in authority brag about sexually assaulting women as just “locker room talk”. It’s why it hurts when a woman’s sexual history is brought into court, and used against her. Because for so many women that scenario – of being the complainant in the witness box – evokes our biggest fear. A fear that we too will be assaulted, and left without juncture to turn to, harassed and unbelieved.

A lot of us are lucky enough to be surrounded by men that don’t treat women as objects for their clawing hands. But if the last month in politics has been a reminder of anything, it is just how many of those 'other' men exist. Those men who have suggested that, as a reward for doing time, in light of the recent not guilty verdict, Ched Evans should get a free pass to do what he wants to women. Those who think that bragging about assaulting women, and berating them on stage is just politics, or just what men do. And even the 'nice guys' who fail to recognise that headphones, for many women, are a piece of armour. A way of saying to the world, 'Hey, just leave me be.'

Michelle Obama discusses the horror Trump’s misogyny has evoked, highlighting that we are not past the point where men believe they can simply do anything to a woman. What’s worse, I think, is that it’s taken these extremes to highlight the scale of the problem, when in reality we never were past that point, and nor have our behaviours suggested we ever really believed we were.

Daily routines and commonplace decisions

This month marks the beginning of Reclaim the Night season, a movement with roots spanning as far back as the Take Back the Night marches of the 1970s. That’s 40 years of women marching in their thousands to protest the fears they face everyday, and the constant state of hypervigilance that has been flung upon them.

Indeed, in her research at the University of Durham, Fiona Vera-Gray found that women are walking to shield themselves from sexual assaults every day. It's scattered throughout the choices we make in our daily routines. Questions over whether the colour we’re wearing draws too much attention, which route home will give most freedom from interaction, and what facial expression will most shield us from the unwanted calls of strangers.

A lot of the time we ignore just how pervasive and commonplace these are, allowing us instead to adopt that easier lens Michelle Obama critiques: the idea that we are past this. But even before Trump, before Evans, before How to Talk to a Woman Who is Wearing Headphones, there was already the fear that the man staring across at us might be the murderer instead of the pizza guy.

It’s time to erode that lens. So women, attend your local Reclaim the Night marches, and talk loudly and openly about those barriers you so often find yourself having to put up. And men, support us, and when you see the walls (the headphones, the mobile phones, the double-locked front doors), respect them, instead of knocking them down.