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Opinion: Women have lived in fear of walking alone in the dark for too long - we've had enough

Our reader shares two terrifying experiences walking home in Dublin and London and asks if we are doing enough to free women from this fear.

Anonymous

BACK WHEN I was a second-year college student, I was living in a tiny, ‘modern’ but badly built apartment in Dublin’s city centre. This was a time when students could afford a city centre dwelling and still be able to feed themselves. We had great fun back then, a big gang of friends enjoying life in the city.

My parents couldn’t support my living in the city (there were five of us in the family so college fees were all they could manage), so I worked as a barmaid to pay the bills and bump up the fees.

The pub in which I worked was just along the quays in Dublin and it ran late, closing to customers around 1 am and with clean-up, I would get out around 2 am.

I felt at the time, at aged 19, that I was streetwise and I thought of myself as a strong, independent woman. Looking back, I really was just a child, but that’s the beauty of a young mind, isn’t it – you feel you’re untouchable.

This was a time when it wasn’t the done thing to cycle in Dublin, and taxis at the time were near impossible to flag down. This was pre-Celtic Tiger, where the capital was just finding its voice.

So, I used to walk the 15-minute walk home, at 2 am, alone. Speaking as an older woman now, and a mother, this seems like a crazy thing to do: a young woman walking home at ‘that hour of night’, but again, I was tough, independent, invincible.

I would keep to along the Liffey on my walk home to make sure I was in the light, along the traffic, so if anyone posed a danger, at least there would be motorists, etc to help me out. You see, this is what you learn to do as a woman. I also followed that well-worn piece of advice that we women pick up along the way, ‘carry your keys in your hand so you have a weapon if anyone attacks you’. I mean, keys?? What are keys supposed to do for us?

Darkness in Dublin

I was keen to get home this time around, had some college work to face the next morning, so for some reason I ducked in behind the old Four Courts building, which was dark, dark dark. No Luas tracks yet. Walking along the dark road I started to hear bells ringing, like soft ‘jingle’ bells you might hear near Santa’s grotto.

Such an unusual sound at that hour of night so I looked back to see a tall man dressed in all black walking at pace towards me. He somehow had these bells on his shoes or trousers, so I figured he was some sort of performer or folk singer, but I wasn’t going to hang on to find out.

I picked up my pace and started a quiet ‘trot’ to get to a brighter main road. Thing is, this man’s bells did me a favour because as I moved faster, I could hear he was getting faster too. He was following me. He was trying to catch up with me.

My pulse raced and my mind with it, too, and all I could think in that split second was, ‘this is it, this is my demise, in a dark lane at the back of the Four Courts’.

I kept running, bells kept jangling, faster and faster. Then I got to the wider Church Street and saw a couple getting out of a taxi so I dashed across the road at them, shouting for help. They were so kind.

All three of us looked back as the man stood on the path, saw what was happening and quickly turned around and walked back into the shadows. They brought me home and I was grateful for their help.

Funny thing is, I never even considered reporting the incident to the gardai because in the light of day it seemed to diminish in my mind and I started to rationalise it as ‘maybe a misunderstanding’.

Journey home in London

You see, as a woman, young, middle-aged or old, you work out a map in your head, the ‘map of safety and risk’ every time you set out from your home in the dark. You ask yourself what the likelihood is of you being in danger, will you need your trusty keys (give me strength) and whether your clothes are going to invite any unwanted attention.

Years later, I was living in London, in an apartment near Islington. I had been out with friends and got the last tube home. My home was just a few minutes from the station so I was comfortable walking home alone.

I saw what appeared to be a very drunken woman on the train, dressed in office wear, falling about on the tube. She seemed to be with a young man and was in such a state that I figured they were both on their way home from a messy office party didn’t pay much attention.

She and her ‘companion’ got off at my stop and walked behind me up the stairs. As you come out of the station, there was a dark doorway. As I walked out, I heard a scream, so ran back in and this guy, ‘her companion’ was assaulting the girl, pulling off her clothes.

She was distraught and something came over me and I somehow just went into overdrive and pulled this man away from her (luckily, he was small). He looked at me and ran onto the street.

“What is happening?”, she asked me so confused. “Did you know him, are you ok?” I asked her. She somehow became more coherent from the shock and it turned out she’d been on the tube alone and the man had come from nowhere and pretended to befriend her. I brought her back and we got security and police.

The girl was traumatised, she may have been drugged, she may just have had too much to drink, I never followed up to find out. Either way, she did not deserve to be singled out, followed, coerced and attacked.

For me, while a shocking experience, the strength that had come my way at that moment in a strange way helped me feel like I had paid it forward, in the same way, the couple had done for me several years earlier.

Enough

Why am I telling these stories? Well, in a week when the most horrendous of crimes is unfolding in London with what appears to be the killing of Sarah Everard and an equally chilling court case in Dublin outlined the horrors a woman in her ‘60s suffered a terrifying assault at the hands of a man on her morning walk, I am reminded of my experiences, and I’ve had enough.

Women have had enough. Enough of checking outfits, enough of ‘carrying keys’, enough of crossing roads to avoid possible perpetrators, enough of feeling like prey.

Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman, in the prime of her life, vanished while walking home from a friend’s flat in south London on Wednesday. We do not know for sure what happened to Sarah, but it looks to be the worst.

The Dublin woman, whose name we don’t know, is a wife, mother and grandmother. She is a full-time carer for her husband. She, like so many other women, went for a morning walk at 7.30 am. A morning walk where she would end up fighting for her life. Her attacker grabbed her from behind, threw her into the boot of his car and when she fought back, proceeded to subject her to a terrifying ordeal.

Yesterday at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court, as he sentenced the attacker to six years, Judge Martin Nolan commended the woman for surviving the “terrifying experience”.

There’s not a woman today who will not be chilled by these two crimes, who will not have had moments like these of varying degrees along the way. I think I can safely say there’s probably not a woman reading this and other accounts who isn’t absolutely sick of it all. It is truly exhausting having to self-police, self-govern every damn move you make.

This week’s events have opened up the conversation again about men, why they commit these crimes, why we’re not talking about them more. And yes, not all men are in this bracket, of course, they are not.

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Every woman, if she’s lucky, has a stack of good men in her life, our fathers, brothers, friends, colleagues. There are wonderful men, but it might be time for these good men to start a conversation about the guys who are not. Enough about women, we’re done, we want to know what this is.

Is it a failure of education, a sickness, is it neurology, what is the makeup of a monster? It’s time we find out, understood it and got a handle on it. Because I, for one, as a woman, a mother of daughters, am done. I’m not prepared to educate them about keys, outfits and about living in fear. Enough.

So, this piece is less for women, and more for men. If you are a man and you’re reading this, ask yourself, have you come across these guys, honestly? Have you sat in their company, knowing there was something ‘off’ but letting it slide? Have you supported the women in your life who’ve suffered at the hands of perpetrators? Are you a father of boys and have you had open discussions about consent, respect?

Have you done enough?

Author’s identity withheld for privacy. We would like to give more women the space to share their stories of abuse and harassment. If you would like your story featured, please contact our editor at laurabyrne@thejournal.ie.  Anonymity guaranteed at all times.

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