Out of all the blogs and posts I have written in relation to human rights this is the only one that has caused me anxiety and made me question myself. I wrote a personal post on Facebook yesterday night following the recent #metoo posts and I rewrote my post a number of times, and then, after I’d posted it I went back and edited it again. I thought it sounded dramatic and over the top. I thought that people would read it and think……….to be honest, I don’t know what I thought they’d think, all I know is that I was worried about what they would think. This really bothered me because 1). I’m a sharer-I think, I feel, I share. I love it; it makes me feel connected to and deeper in friendship with other people, 2). I’m opinionated and strong and I don’t take anything lying down. So why, when something horrible and upsetting has happened to me, do I suddenly feel uncomfortable and vulnerable about sharing it? My only conclusion to this question is that it’s down to how we, as women, are taught to view sexual threat. And because it is part of our every day lives we learn to accept it.
My Facebook post from yesterday evening:
“#metoo. At 17 I was groped by a teacher at school. At 23 I was sexually harassed & threatened with sexual assault. #nomore”.
Sexual assault. It sounds horrible and scary but none of us strong independent women want to be scared. Is that why we don’t talk out? We don’t want to be perceived or treated as vulnerable or weak. Yet sexual assault is the strong preying on the weak. Not weak of mind, weaker in physical strength and it doesn’t matter how ballsy we are or how independent we are, if a man wants to physically threaten us we don’t stand a chance. So I wonder if women “stay strong” and silent to prevent everything females have worked so hard to achieve from being torn apart. Maybe we think we are letting our side down by admitting to the reality that we are physically weaker than men? This is the truth to why I felt vulnerable sharing my post last night. I don’t want to let the side down either. But something inside, despite the fear, told me that this logic was misconstrued. Being scared isn’t weak, being scared is wrong.
We had a drama teacher at school and from the age of about 9 years and up we laughed about what a pervert we thought he was. He would unnecessarily put his hands on our backs and as we left the class room that hand on the back would slide down to our bottoms and give us a little push out of the door. Did we do anything? No. We were disgusted but we said nothing. One girl reported him when she was 16. What happened? She left the school not long after. No investigation into the allegations whatsoever. When I was 18 he called me into his office with another friend to give us some congratulatory news-we had been nominated for a drama award. He threw his arms around my friend and gave her a hug. Then he turned to hug me; he moved his head and body in towards the side where my friend was standing, thus blocking her view, and with the other hand he grabbed my breast. He withdrew and smiled and said “well done”. Then we were dismissed. My friend was bubbling about the honour of the award-she hadn’t seen a thing because he’d made sure she hadn’t seen a thing. He now had an eye witness to the event who couldn’t testify that he had done anything wrong. My parents investigated legal action but the response from a friend in law said that the process of pressing charges would be so distressing and difficult for me that it would probably ruin my chances of leaving school with my hoped for A-levels. This teacher was retiring at the end of the year and so we decided that, with his career almost at an end, we would leave it. Why should I fail my A-levels because of him? It seemed a good decision at the time but I have never stopped wondering, for more than 17 years now, whether it was or not.
As for my other story, it’s a little more dramatic. My husband used to be in the army and he was deploying for a three month stint in Afghanistan and so I decided that rather than be left behind as usual I too would go on a trip. So I planned a trip to Nepal to teach English, organised through a Nepalese charity, INFO Nepal. I met another girl when I got out there and we requested to work together. So we travelled from Kathmandu into deepest Chitwan. Our location was very rural, and hours and hours bus ride from anywhere. Once we were there, we were there if you know what I mean. However we felt lucky as we were staying with a pharmacist and his family and they were considered well off in the village-we even had our own room. It was a bizarre set up though. Our room was a breeze block room built in a corner on the rooftop. We had a window with no glass, just iron bars like a little prison. Yet still, we were grateful for warm hospitality and a roof over our heads.
To cut a very long story short, about two weeks into our stay we awoke one morning to find ourselves covered in condoms. Literally, covered. Packets opened, condoms pulled out and literally lying all over us, our pillows and our beds. We were so confused. Our door was locked so no one could have got in which meant the only option was that they had come in through the bars on the window. Groggy and confused, I started to investigate. I’m not sure what I was looking for exactly but evidence of some kind I suppose to help with an explanation. I could find nothing except I could see that my travel journal, lying next to the window, was half open with more condoms stuffed inside. I picked it up and found my journal was covered all over in hand drawn pornographic pictures and sexual threats about what the “artist/writer” was going to do to me. It was disgusting, aggressive and very threatening. In fact I’ve just reread the email today that I sent my family later that day and it’s too upsetting to repeat-he even wrote down what time he was going to come to my room in the night to do these things to me. The whole of the family we were staying with had seen my journal as I wrote in it each night after supper. In fact the family had all looked at it because they wanted to see the photos I had stuck inside the covers of my family. Everyone knew it was mine.
We got dressed and decided we should approach the family about the situation. We had so far got on well with them and, at this moment, didn’t feel threatened by them. The only thing that niggled at me was that our room was on the roof of the house and as a security measure the pharmacist locked the front of the building with a metal grill each night. There was no getting in or out of the building at night. Ultimately I knew it had to be someone in the house with us but my brain couldn’t process how frightening that felt. Nevertheless we showed the mother and children our evidence and started asking questions. The response we got made us worried. They said a little boy from next door must have done it (which was impossible) but they were clearly worried and tense. When the father came in, a man we had spoken with and laughed with much since our arrival, suddenly lost all understanding of the English language. He acted like he didn’t understand anything we said and he disappeared again very quickly.
Communication in the village was limited-just two telephones, one of which was at the house we were staying in and the other at a nearby shop but both were not working. A group of boys down the road were trying to set up an Internet cafe-they had two ancient computers and no cafe facilities-but we decided our best option was to try and send a few emails. We spent the rest of the day worrying and fretting but decided to busy ourselves. So we taught our lessons and then went home to finish our washing. Upon collecting the dry washing we had hung out the day before I found that the gussets of all my knickers had been cut out to leave big gaping holes. My bras had also been vandalised. The front of each cup had a hole cut of them were the nipple should be. I’m not sure how this sounds to you as you read this but to me if felt threatening and scary. There was aggression in this act and a physical step towards this persons disgusting thoughts being acted out.
As night drew near our only option was to act as pleasantly and amicably as we could with the family but neither of us slept that night. The next morning we were woken by a banging on our door-the telephone was working again and we had a call. I went down and found a Canadian girl who was also volunteering at INFO Nepal on the line. Her first words? “You need to leave now, you are in danger. It’s the dad and this has happened before”. I can’t lie, these were not the words I wanted to hear. I went back up explain to my friend that we needed to start packing immediately whilst the Canadian volunteer investigated travel options for us. The next phone call from her was to tell us that no buses would be coming through our village until the next morning. That meant staying another day AND another night.
Thankfully now that the phone was working again and our emails had been sent and received communication with our families could begin. However even in communication with our loved ones we had to be strong and stoical for fear of worrying them any further.
It became obvious to the family that all was not well and that we were making plans to leave. They followed us around and listened in on our conversations and kept questioning us about what was happening. Up until now the phone we had been using was in the shop and when we’d been on it everyone left us alone to talk privately. However suddenly this phone was no longer available and we had to use the phone in the family room. This was a tiny room just big enough for a double bed and a foot away from it a single bed. It was the parents room which they shared with two children but it also had a tv and was used as their sitting room too. The telephone was on a little table squished between both beds. That last evening, after we had hesitantly explained to the family that we were leaving (INFO Nepal had no direct contact with the family during this time and we were left to explain the reason for our departure) we asked to make a phone call each to confirm to our parents back home that we would be leaving at 5am the next day. We were guided into the family room where we had to perch on the edge of the single bed to make our calls. Rishi, the father, followed us in in a towel wrapped around his waist and a string vest. He sat on the edge of the double bed and leaned forwards to rest his elbows on his knees and stared straight us as we spoke on the phone. He was only a few inches away from my face and so I spoke in a sing song voice to my parents as if I didn’t have a care in the world when inside I was scared and intimidated. After the calls, as we tried to leave the room, the whole family turned on us. They cornered us in the room and started shouting at us and waving their arms. With our backs pressed up against the wall we had to sidle towards the door and leave the room, too afraid to turn and run, we walked backwards, edging our way then up the stairs, still pressed to the wall. Once in our room we locked the door and lay together in the same bed, holding hands, too afraid to sleep.
The next morning we were grateful for such an early start. We were out in the streets with our bags almost an hour before bus was due to arrive for fear of missing it. The family barely said two words to us apart from one little boy who was sweet and kind. We both felt devastated to say goodbye to the mother. Despite her aggression from the night before we had spent many hours over the two weeks talking to her and getting to know her. She was kind and sweet and of course it was not her fault her husband had done these things. I believe her anger towards us had come from a place of self preservation-this was her life, her husband, her children and she had to try and protect it all.
Our bus journey was a leap of faith to say the least. We spent a number of hours stood up on a bus so full that people were actually hanging onto the outside of the bus and then had to make a connection to another bus. Our instructions for when we got off this bus were to go to the shop on the corner next to the telephone box and tell the owner of the shop who we were. He would then guide us onto the next bus we needed to take. All organised by people that we didn’t feel we could trust anymore. By the grace of God that bus took up to our new destination of Pokhara. We were booked into a pokey rundown hotel but when we got into that room and shut and locked the door my first tears flowed, and boy did they flow. I suddenly realised how scared I had been to be able to find this horrible little hotel so safe.
My story has a happy ending. I was physically unharmed and able to finish my trip and can now raise my voice up with every other woman posting #metoo. But the majority of women suffering sexual harassment, assault and violence do not have the ability to raise their voices up. So we must do it for them, by uniting against a way of life that has become so commonplace for so many of us.
If you want to be part of change for women suffering sexual and physical harassment and violence then join Judith Clegg’s campaign @HANDSOFFGlobal here
If you would like support as a victim of sexual harassment/violence/pressure then go to Victim Support.