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cw: harassment, rape mention

I’ll never forget the first time I decided to stand up against street harrassment.

It started on the metro platform. She looked about my age, late teens or early twenties. She was alone. I saw him sidle up to her, heard him shout a comment about the shape of her ass. She scooted away and gripped her bag more closely. When the train came, he followed her on. I was sitting in the first row of seats; they were standing at the front of the car. He asked her if she had a boyfriend. She turned away, tried to pretend he wasn’t there despite him standing right against her back. He told her he wanted to take her home, started listing the things he’d do. She looked pleadingly at the other passengers. They avoided her eyes.

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Imagine this but in a dim, crowded train full of people pretending it’s not happening.

 

“Leave her alone.”

I spoke quietly, but it felt like a shout. I almost didn’t know where the words came from. I’m terrified of confrontation. I don’t make fusses. Before this I had always kept to myself, even when I was the one being harassed, even when some man walked next to me in the street and told me to smile, or told me I was pretty, or told me I was a dyke, or told me I’d be lucky if he decided to rape me. But that day, as a scared 19 year old on the DC metro, I thought of the conversations I’d recently started having about feminism, about cat-calling and harassment, and the ways that women (as I was, at the time, identifying) are taught to stay silent and small. So I spoke.

And as soon as I did, so did others. A man behind me called, “Yeah, stop bothering her!” A woman said she’d seen him harassing several other young women at the station before. Several other voices chimed in, chastising.

The harasser made a quick exit at the next stop, and the young woman gave us a small smile and whispered, “Thanks.” I felt powerful in a way I had never experienced before. I felt like I had helped create a tiny community of safety and support on that train.

This is what feminism does. This is what it can build. That moment of power was when I realized that I intended to make feminism a fundamental part of the way I live my life.

I see the constant internet vitriol against feminism and social justice. I hear people I grew up with talk about feminism as if it’s an insult. It seems like the attitude our society holds towards feminism is at best a shrug and a snicker. It’s seen as everything from irrelevant to dangerous. I’m writing this because I want to show the ways that feminism – even just talking about it, even just planting a tiny idea in someone’s head – can change the course of a life for the better. It made me feel like I deserved to exist, in a world that had left me doubting my own worth. It gave me a community that believes as strongly as I do in passing on that epiphany, and the courage to build the better world we know can exist. My commitment to feminism blossomed into an interest in social justice as a whole, to the point where I now put the fight against various injustices at the center of my life.

It amazes me how that moment on the subway was the first time I ever felt like I could stand up for myself and the people around me. It took me 20 years to learn to speak. Feminism is what gave me lungs.

I still have yet to stand up to harassment that I’ve experienced directed towards myself. That’s not quite a step I’ve been able to take. And many others are also unable to do so — not because they lack bravery but because speaking up, for so many people, can put their lives in danger. But I know that every day I work towards making the spaces I inhabit places where people don’t need to shout back at their harassers because the people around them will have already done it, or places where harassers will, hopefully, never come because they know they’re not welcome.

If you’re interested in helping fight against street harassment in DC, check out http://www.collectiveactiondc.org/