A few days ago, I had what I believe was my first truly frightening encounter with gender-based violence. Don't get me wrong, I have not been immune to the more subtle ways that gender-based violence manifests itself in my everyday life: it bombards me in advertising, from clothing to cars; I have experienced it in the unwanted looks or catcalls as I walk down the streets; I have had had to ward off unsolicited advances from men at clubs when dancing in a group of girls.
But never before had I ever truly been afraid for my safety. Until a few days ago. I am currently living and teaching in a small town in the north of France. Last week, as I returned home from a friend's house, I realized I had forgotten my purse (with my house keys and cellphone) at her place. It's important to mention that this particular town has the policy of shutting off all street lights that are not strictly in the city center (which is comprised of three or four streets). Therefore, at 11:00 pm, most of the streets in the town are pitch black.
I had walked home with another friend, but when I realized I had forgotten my keys, I insisted to this friend that I had no problem going back for them on my own. She offered repeatedly to come with me, but I insisted that if I took her bike, I'd be quicker and back before we knew it. Begrudgingly, she let me take her bike and ride the 10 or so blocks to our other friend's house.
At this point, it was past 11 pm and most of the lights in town were off. Even as I left, I didn't want to admit to myself that I was scared. Everything was fine until I passed through the city center and noticed a man entering his car. We made eye contact and once I passed him, he sped up and passed me. I didn't think much of it until, just before entering the dark streets on the outskirts, I noticed that this same car was now somehow behind me. At this point, I entered the darkest, longest street and I was very much afraid. However, it only got worse as I noticed the car follow me and then drive up ahead and pull over on the side of the street. At this moment, I was so afraid for my safety that I pedalled as hard and fast as I could and made it out of the dark street to my friend's place.
After I met her at the gate and she gave me my things, I mentioned that I thought someone was following me. In retrospect, I realize that I should have stayed over at her place. I was terrified of biking back home. But, I pretended to be brave and I insisted that enough time had passed and that the car was now probably gone. But it wasn't. On the way back, as I was riding down the dark street once again, the car was still on the street, headlights on. Once again, I pedalled as fast as I could, but felt a cold fear grip me the moment I passed the car and heard it start its engine.
I cannot explain the amount of things that ran through my mind: Was he planning to turn around and follow me? Hit my bike, perhaps? Maybe just cut me off? I had no idea, all I knew was that I had to bike as fast as humanly possible and get back to the well-lit streets. Once I was out of that dark street, without even a glance behind me, I sped through the city center streets and back to my home. I made it home terrified and out of breath, but safe. However, I am sure that I saw the same car drive past my school of residence once I had closed the gate behind me.
I realize now how fortunate I've been my whole life, and even as I write what transpired, I feel a visceral fear just like I did in that moment. That night, after sharing my fears with my loved ones, I was left with anger. Anger at the injustice of being a woman and having to think over everything once, twice, or three times, just to be sure that I am not putting myself in danger. I felt outrage at being a walking target for violence, when men can stroll through the same dark streets freely.
But anger has never solved anything. Talking does. I shared my experiences with my supervising professor and she confessed that previous female student-teachers had had similarly terrifying experiences. We talked over alternative courses of action, like staying the night at my first friend's house or even at my teacher's if need be. And most importantly, we discussed constructive ways to bring our opinions forward to those in the town hall, those who have an actual say in the streetlight policy. A discussion which I plan to continue for the sake of any and all women in this town.
Finally, if I could go back in time, I would tell myself one thing: do not belittle any fear that you feel. You are not being paranoid, you are afraid and have every right to be. And most of all, TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. Listen to your gut feeling, it's there for a reason; because one day, it may just save your life.