Why I Reclaim the Night: Being a Black Woman in Public Space
A brief foreword: Forth Valley Rape Crisis invited me to speak at Reclaim the Night in Stirling. A friend editing a zine, Why I Reclaim the Night, for RTN Nottingham and London asked for contributions. Both prompted this reflection.
I’m writing this on the train home. Legs tucked carefully to one side. Eyes down, even when I’m not looking at the notepad, because I don’t want any man to use his entitlement to female attention to translate an incidental glance into an invitation to talk. I get the train back from Glasgow around this time of evening a few times every week. It’s a familiar environment. I’ve spent thousands of hours in identical carriages. But I never let my guard down. I don’t let the rocking of the train lull me to sleep after a busy day, like the man opposite has.
Now the weather is turning, the nights are drawing in. It gets dark earlier every day. I prefer Glasgow in the summer, and not just because it rains less. I feel safer when it’s light. If a man begins to follow me, gets too close, he will be easier to spot. Other people are more likely to notice and intervene. In the dark, walking through the city, I am vulnerable. Let’s not pretend otherwise. I’m afraid a man will rape me. 3 million women and girls across the UK experience rape, domestic violence, stalking, or other forms of male violence every single year – the threat of male violence is very real. When men call to me on the street, when men touch me against my will, I am terrified. So I hurry from place to place, taking care not to linger beyond any specific purpose, and waste not a second in walking back to the train station.
Like anyone else, I am keen to get home – out of the cold, back to reliable wifi and lounge trousers. But I don’t want to miss the train because I don’t want to hang around the station for 40 minutes. If I am waiting, a man will approach me despite every last atom in my body willing him to stay away. The book, the headphones, the rigid posture – none of these things rid him of the delusion that my time and personal space are rightly his for the taking. He will sit beside me, press his leg against mine, nudge my foot. He will ask where I’m heading, if he can join me. He will, more often than not, ignore me when I ask him to please leave me alone. The station staff have always disappeared by this point, are as difficult to catch as smoke.
You would think getting on the train would be a relief after that – the brightly lit carriages, the security cameras, the presence of a conductor. But it isn’t always. The man who slid his hand up my thigh. The man who curled around me, using my body as a pillow on the last train home despite me begging him to please, please, please stop – none of my pleading made a difference, and he only stopped when another man told him he was out of order. The man who asked me if I liked taking big Black cock (white men have this sick way of fetishising Black bodies and sexuality). The man who tried to follow me into the toilet. The man who will be next. They are all threats.
Sometimes, when I am trying to be as inconspicuous as possible when you are the only Black woman on the train, I wipe off my lipstick. I don’t want any part of me to stand out, to attract a second glance. In these ways I fold myself up, make myself smaller, in the hope of avoiding male attention – always unwanted. My entire relationship with public space is defined by a need to be near-invisible in the hope I will be lucky enough to escape male violence. For so many women, it is the same.
But being invisible isn’t a solution: if it’s not me, it will be another woman harassed or hurt by men. And that is unacceptable. I refuse to be silent when other women are at risk. I’m not the only one in danger – every woman is – and that injustice fills me with rage. The idea of us all being made small because of men, that makes me furious. That anger keeps me challenging patriarchy when despair makes me want to give up. So does the support and encouragement of other women.
That’s why I’m going to speak at Reclaim the Night in Stirling: to use my voice and say that this is unacceptable. To march with other women, to stand up and be counted as their sister, to take up a space in which I’d be afraid without other women by my side.