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What It’s Like Being A Woman

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I’ve blogged before about my weariness navigating a white-washed world. Today I write about another part of my identity: being a woman. Being a woman weighs upon my life in a similar way not being white does; relentlessly, constantly, invisibly. Because every other person is female you’d assume it’s a bit easier, and people are more aware.

It’s not the case. In my experience, womanhood has been a long, dreary road of taking unsavoury situations for granted. A journey to stay educated on the issues that affect all kinds women all over the world, without just feeling overwhelmingly depressed. Learning how skewed the world is with a mixture of bitter outrage and numb acknowledgement. Realising how much crap I’ve just accepted without questioning.

Women everywhere are daily calling out bullshit on behalf of other women. Fighting, speaking up, talking about it, making sure the next generation learns. There is still so far to go. I know this because in my own life I am constantly surrounded by people personally questioning my own small voice, my own persistent questions. The colleague who feels “weird” about using a gender neutral toilet. Facebookers questioning the validity of a Women’s March. These small daily fractures are a relatively small amount of struggle: here in the western world, as a brown cis woman.

There is a whole, huge, necessary web of discussion around women’s rights and intersectionality. Articles detailing the issues, the statistics and the tropes that affect women of all minorities, bodies and sexualities are everywhere. It can be overwhelming to try and write about. There is clearly no way I can speak for everyone: multiple voices are a necessity. Intersectionality is not just important, it’s imperative. I can speak only for myself and from my own experiences, some of which I will share for you. The doubters and the confused and the “how bad can it really be?” crowd. I will try to give some insight into what it’s like being this particular woman. Please note this is not the worst of it, or the half of it. This is just what I can bear to recall and share publicly on the internet.

international womens day, IWD, international women, women, women's rights, woman, self-portrait, me, girl in red

TW: Sexual Assault

Aged 16 whilst on a family holiday, a random stranger following me around the area near our hotel and trying to take photos of me.

A few weeks ago at my local corner shop and wearing contact lenses instead of glasses, the 40+ guy at the counter said “Oooh, you are looking all sexy today! She is a girl after all! If you looked like this all the time we’d all want to be your boyfriends!”

Depping for a wind quintet in 2014 with one other dep (a male friend). I was paid £50 less than both the other dep and the regular players with no explanation.

Not realising two traumatic sexual encounters I had in my teens were rape until I was about 23. I read an article about victim-blaming where I realised what had happened. I later discovered given the context for one of the incidents the guy would have been jailed for a likely minimum of 12 years.

Aged 18, staying the night with an old friend who literally just took his cock out and started poking me with it, “but you used to fancy me at school”. Me, “What are you doing? I don’t fancy you!”. Him, “Well, it’s out now, can you just go down on me for a bit?”.

Attempted gang rape aged 20 whilst walking home (as discussed before on this blog).

Last year on a single decker bus in the middle of the afternoon, a man stared openly at my breasts and legs, put his hands down his pants and started touching himself, moaning, rolling his eyes back and occasionally nodding at me and licking his lips.

2015, me pitching Quizcats to a booking agency. During the meeting the guy said “there’s two reason we won’t take you on at this point. Firstly, you’re not an ideal front woman – people want somebody who fits this specific mould, and secondly, nobody will take a band run by one girl seriously”. Both the pictures of “ideal frontwomen” (aka glamorous stick thin white girls) and the comment about not being taken seriously have come back to haunt me since in particularly low moments.

Aged 19, walking home, a guy cornered me and said “I don’t want to fuck you because you’re well butters but I’ll feel your tits for a bit” and then tried to grope me.

Aged 22, an older guy in a suit on the train from Waterloo said “I hope this isn’t weird or anything, but you have a really beautiful neck. Could I take a picture of your neck?”. I said no, so he continued to stare at my neck for the entire 40 minute journey whilst breathing heavily and trying to take photos with his phone on his lap.

Similar thing on a train in my early 20s, a guy sat opposite me just started taking multiple photos of my feet and legs on his phone. When I asked him what he was doing and if he could stop, he said “well I assumed you wanted this to happen because you’ve got them crossed”. (?)

A guy on a bus who tried to take photos up my skirt whilst continually moving his phone around every time I tried to side step. The bus was rammed and so I had nowhere else to really walk to or stand.

Following the attempted gang rape aged 20, I gave a statement to the police and the second question they asked me was “What were you wearing?”.

After the first rape aged 18, he told me I was too hairy and had a moustache, and I should “sort myself out” for when we next had sex.

Not being allowed out of an exam aged 15 despite starting my period, and then being asked to wipe down and spray the chair afterwards with disinfectant as punishment for “staining it”.

About two months ago, exiting a choir a rehearsal in central London a guy comes up to me. “Hi, I saw you go in there a while back and I had to wait until you came back out. I really like the way you dress and your legs. What’s your name? Where do you live?” and so on for about five minutes. The rehearsal had been almost two and a half hours, so presumably, he had just been waiting that entire time.

That same guy was standing outside or near the rehearsal as I went in for the next two weeks. One time he followed me after I got out onto the tube without letting me know he was there.

Aged 11 onwards, school nicknames including “Gorilla, Monkey Man, Osama, Paki, Saddam, Terrorist” in reference to upper lip hair (moustache) and leg hair. Aged 14 I started using hair removal cream and shaving my legs and these comments stopped.

Aged 18 I stopped bothering (because who the hell has the time to time five minute intervals with rancid smelling cream on their face) and my boyfriend aged 20 asked if I could sort my moustache out.

Some one-night stand guy in university having a blazing row with me after refusing to wear a condom.“What kind of girl isn’t on the pill in this day and age?!” and “you can’t seriously think contraception is the mans job”.

Aged 7, an old guy in a wheelchair in a library said “oh, she’s got lovely hair” and reached out to touch my hair.

Aged 8, “She’s got such lovely hair. She’ll be beating the boys off with a stick when she’s older”.

Aged 17 on a rollercoaster ride, a complete stranger next to me placed his hand on my leg for the entire ride despite me asking about four times for him to let go.

Just after publishing WILNBW, “most women can’t write for shit”.

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On my flickr account some guy messaged me saying he has a fetish for plimsolls and has, to date, downloaded every photo I’ve ever uploaded of myself wearing trainers or plimsolls.

Aged 15, “I think it’s really cool that you’re not like the rest of the girls”.

Over the years calling boys out on weird sexual comments, “you’re a bit argumentative, aren’t you?”.

With an ex about two years ago who would repeatedly go in to pin me down and kiss me hard when we went to bed. I said “Please don’t just grab me and kiss me like this, if I’m sleeping sometimes I just want a cuddle”, he replied “Well, I like kissing, and you’re just really fit and sexy and I can’t help it. You shouldn’t be so fit then”. (This guy also cropped up in my earlier post about race with his “you’re like going on holiday” comment).

Aged 8, overhearing “your daughter is just so bossy!” multiple times.

Older male colleague, aged 19, “I hope you don’t feel threatened by me. I’d never go after you. To me, you’re just one of the guys”.

Actual strangers commenting “what lovely hair” multiple times during my childhood.

Friend of a friend who was up with another show during a festival, came over to the place I was staying at 11pm. I made him some tea and after about 30 minutes he said “well anyway, I didn’t come round for a chat”. I said I didn’t fancy him or want to do anything but he was welcome to stay the night as it was late. We went to sleep and I woke up during the night to find his hand down my pants. He then repeatedly touched me through the night. This guy was about a foot taller than me so I was literally pinned in place.

Aged 13, “it’s such a shame you have to wear glasses because your eyes are gorgeous”.

Aged 19, got in late with ex-boyfriend and turned over to sleep. The next morning “Somebody’s a bit of a frigid bitch then! What was that all about?”.

Aged 19-20, learning that women being turned on was “a thing”, and not a rare thing, but a thing all women should be experiencing at all times before/during sex.

“You could look a lot prettier if you went for contact lenses and plucked your eyebrows – you have great eyebrows, they’re just not that defined” – from another girl when we both 15.

During a public Quizcats event last year. In one of the breaks a male audience member grabbed me on the way back, pushed me into one of the booths, put his arm round me and said “I wanted to congratulate you. This is the best night ever, and you’re really fit” and just generally started trying to touch me whilst I pushed him off which he ignored. One of the band (male, 6ft+) came in, told him to fuck off and leave the night and the guy instantly let go of me and left.

Regularly on this blog, comments from white, middle-aged dudes that say things like “I love stopping by your blog, you’re such a natural beauty!” or “You’re one of the only women who can actually write!”.

Similarly on my last post about experiencing racism and being mixed race, the amount of people who commented “you’re a young attractive girl, so this surely can’t be a problem”.

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I could go on, but I feel like most of these stories will be ringing true for women everywhere and to be honest it’s hard to recount. The most depressing thing about the above list is not that the few times somebody was able to end a situation it was another male, rather than me. The most depressing part is that for every male reading that list going “Jesus, how horrible” there will be somebody going “she really kicks up a fuss”. The most depressing thing is not that this is just a random list of stuff I can remember on the spot and that there are a lot of far worse and graphic encounters I couldn’t bear to recall, let alone publicly detail.

The most depressing part of this list is that guaranteed most women will have read that nodding along, because it’s all so dimly familiar. It’s just part of our everyday lives. Who doesn’t walk home with their hand in a pocket, keys in fist, just in case? I won’t bother to go through each example, and tell you how it made me feel at that time. Is it any wonder I gave up brushing that bloody hair of mine years ago?

And, hey, look. Maybe, as I wrote in my post on race, I am one of those people that’s “just asking for it”, with my fringe and my resting bitch face and my general demeanour of dissatisfaction. Maybe I’m just that girl that complains all the time, right? I should just laugh it off and lighten up! A compliment is a compliment! If somebody thinks you’re attractive, that’s nice, right? Somebody thinking you’re so attractive they’ll photograph you, a stranger, is sweet, right? If you’re so attractive they rape you, it’s a compliment, right? Smile!

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Maybe some of the incidents I’ve experienced are also in part due to growing up in London, or being young, or being mixed race. Thing is, I don’t have the luxury of separating my experiences and cataloguing them based on cause: I just live my life. This is the kind of thing that happens. It’s a twisted rite of passage. Present a man with a woman and even if that woman is their sleeping girlfriend, or a neighbouring stranger, or a 7 year old child with their parent, or a lone figure walking very fast on the opposite side of the street, the man will do whatever the fuck he wants. Put a woman into a male-dominated industry and she’ll have to be “bossy”, “feisty” and “nasty” to get anywhere.

There is no set victim. There is no one face of female inequality and abuse. It is a gradient where women are inordinately affected by our race, our gender, our sexuality, our geography. Ingrown problems exist too; white feminism, heteronormative slants, cultural appropriation and the silencing of PoC. Growing up there was a lot I didn’t question. Now I’m older, and I’m questioning it, and I’m bloody exhausted with it. It’s the same old conversations every time you call something out, the same knackering negotiations, the same wait for privilege to illuminate itself.

Presumably my ancestral mothers didn’t want me to grow up with this crap and yet, here we are. Another conversation; another unfortunate comment to have to dismantle and explain. Once again, I call it out, one catcall, one day, and one undocumented rape at a time. Maybe one day things will be better. Until then I’ll be here with my serious face, my easily ignored blogs, this goddamned patriarchy that just won’t burn. Sat here, hoping one of these days all the sparks will finally burst into flame.

international womens day, IWD, international women, women, women's rights, woman, self-portrait, me, girl in red

international womens day, IWD, international women, women, women's rights, woman, self-portrait, me, girl in red

FURTHER READING

What It’s Like Not Being White

Dear Virgin

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12 Comments

  • Reply Natasha

    As I say so often when I read your posts, thank you for writing this Laila. I’m appalled at the comments you’ve received here and reading through all of these I was wincing as I’ve been in several similar situations, heard these phrases, been told these things and grew up feeling insecure about things like body hair and self image because of comments such as the ones you received, as well as the unsolicited and often worrying sexual comments and situations which happen far too often and go unnoticed too – it’s shocking and wrong and I’m just so sorry you’ve been through all of this and the fact this post resonated with me, as I know it will do with many others, is shocking too. I definitely agree we still have a ways to go, and your comments about intersectionality were important too – I know I can do better and I’ve still got a lot to learn but I remain hopeful, because of posts like these and voices like yours, that we can share these stories and strive for a future where we all feel respected and safe – at least in my idealised view of the world, I would love to see this happen, so I live in optimism and hope and thank you for keeping me thinking and learning too! – Tasha

    March 8, 2017 at 5:16 pm
  • Reply Stevie

    “my easily ignored blogs” – nope, especially not this one. It’s devastating stuff. As a man I don’t really know how to respond to this. Obviously, “not all men” is not the way to do it, although I don’t think I know anyone who would behave like this. I think, more appropriately, is to thank you for highlighting all of this, to acknowledge your courage and honesty, and to try and make a world where you, or any woman, don’t have to deal with this shit ever, let alone with such alarming frequency.

    March 8, 2017 at 9:34 pm
  • Reply Gabriela

    It’s so disturbing that so many of us in this age group grew up not having the cognitive frame of rape/assault, and only realize later that that’s what it was. How does that even happen? What kind of society and education leaves that bit of key knowledge out? I’m so grateful for voices like yours, because that’s the only way to ensure it doesn’t keep happening to further generations.

    March 8, 2017 at 10:11 pm
    • Reply Laila

      I agree, it’s terrifying. Honestly, the gaps in my knowledge were huge. Even stuff like “no means no” seemed like alien concepts until I was lot older. The idea that I should like the other person and be turned on was just nowhere near my consciousness. I wrote my “Dear Virgin” post to address some of those gaps for any younger readers.

      March 8, 2017 at 10:39 pm
  • Reply adriannecalgie

    Laila, you are one of the most articulate writers I know. I’m sorry for what you’ve been through but the way you have used your experiences to educate and engage with people is truly inspiring.

    March 8, 2017 at 10:12 pm
  • Reply Aqy✨ (@skinnydecflatte)

    Oh my goodness, it broke my heart reading everything that has happened to you! You’re such a strong woman for being able to stand strong till today, I salute you.

    skinnydecxflatte.blogspot.com xo

    March 9, 2017 at 6:27 am
    • Reply Laila

      Thank you for your kind words! X

      March 9, 2017 at 10:40 am
  • Reply Jane

    Once again amazing writing Laila. I’m so sorry you’ve had to endure all those experiences, and it wearies me how common those experiences are among us. I’m getting so tired but posts like yours light the fire again.

    March 9, 2017 at 10:37 am
    • Reply Laila

      Thank you so much Jane x

      March 9, 2017 at 10:40 am
  • Reply Priya Pappu

    Thank you for sharing this Laila. You are brave, and people need to read this, but I know it’s hard to collect these instances and share them. One thing that frustrates me constantly is instantly feeling shameful/embarrassed if someone catcalls me. And then I’m just livid because why should *I* be flushed and frazzled when that happens?

    March 9, 2017 at 10:47 pm
  • Reply Novreica

    Reading your experiences just broke my heart. My experience being a woman in a third world country is worse, but it’s worst when women are being shut and not being able to speak it out.
    I sincerely adore your courage to speak out and it just lights up the fire inside of me. Thank you so much. Be strong and happy, dear! <3

    July 23, 2017 at 12:12 pm
  • Reply Claire

    My goodness Laila, this list. Felt at times both overwhelming and dangerously familiar. Thank you for writing this, it’s important.

    July 25, 2017 at 1:52 pm
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