It is a hot summer day. You are a 19-year-old girl living and studying in a foreign city. You are excited to get to school because you are wearing your cute new summer dress. You squeeze onto a metro for your morning commute, your backpack facing forward to more closely protect your valuables. You and your fellow riders are packed in like sardines, so tightly packed that you cannot move your arms from down by your sides and can take neither a half-step forward nor backward. You feel your neighbor’s breath on your back. It is annoying and frustrating but, so far, it is nothing out of the ordinary.
Then it happens.
You are standing next to, or should I say, pushed up against a tall middle-aged businessman wearing a fedora. You feel something in his coat pocket press against your leg. All the passengers are crammed together so you give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he looks just as uncomfortably cramped as you. It’s probably just a pen in his pocket.
With every passing moment, the pen presses slightly deeper into your upper thigh. You look down but your backpack is blocking your view so you nervously try to convince yourself it is still an accident, still a pen. After all, the train is incredibly crowded and you don’t want to be a bother or embarrass him by making false accusations. Plus, you will be getting off in three stops so it wouldn’t be worth the hassle.
Except you can’t ignore it. The pen’s pressure increases and shifts to your inner thigh, slowly creeping upward towards your underwear. And then there’s no denying it. That is not a pen in the businessman’s jacket pocket. That is his finger. Two stops to go.
You are suddenly as alert as a deer in headlights. You look nervously at him but he is staring straight ahead. Your heart begins to race and you feel a bit short of breath. You cannot move your feet. You cannot move your arms. The crowded metro you once considered merely frustrating has instantly become dangerous and frightening. You realize you are stuck standing on a train with a strange man’s finger pressing against your vagina. One stop to go.
Time seems to stop. One second becomes one minute. One minute becomes one year. What you previously though to be ‘only’ three stops has become an eternity. You anxiously try to string together a few words to tell the man to move but, in ordinary circumstances, your foreign language skills are mediocre at best – and these aren’t ordinary circumstances. You can’t think about anything except that the strange man’s hand is pressing harder and harder against your vagina. His hand is pressing against your vagina. His hand is pressing against your vagina.
You hold your breath, close your eyes, and wait for your stop.
Your station finally arrives and you practically jump off the train, glancing at the man as you pass. He gives you a sly smile, saying it all without saying a word.
Unfortunately, I don’t have to imagine it. I lived it.
A new UNICEF study found one in ten girls under age 20 worldwide (approximately 120 million) has experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual act. I am that one in ten. And although my experience with sexual harassment happened nearly ten years ago and pales in comparison to those who have survived worse abuse, I still remember every detail, every second, as if it happened yesterday.
However, if any good came from my experience, it is that I vowed never to stay silent again. I promised myself that, if anyone else made me uncomfortable, I would speak up loudly and protect myself. As it would turn out, I would not have to wait long to get my chance.
A few weeks later, I was taking the train home with a few of my girl friends after a night out. Even though the train was fairly empty and many seats were available, we opted to stand, reminiscing on the night’s excitement as the train rushed on.
Suddenly, I noticed a man in the window’s reflection. He had gotten up from his seat and was wandering slowly towards us, staring at us, approaching me from behind. There was hardly anyone else on the train. Why was he walking towards us when the other door was closer? I no longer heard my friends’ conversation, all my energy went to watching the man’s movements in the window’s reflection. He was getting closer and closer, now only a few feet away. I couldn’t take it any longer. I spun around and yelled, “Ne me touches pas!” (Don’t touch me!) as loud as I could.
This time he was the one who looked like a deer in headlights. The man instantly stopped in his tracks as if frozen in time. We got off the train at the next stop and I, my heart still racing, let a sense of empowerment and exhilaration overwhelm me, fill me.
I will never know for sure if that man meant any harm to me or my friends. But what I do know is that I will never allow anyone to make me feel the way I felt after my encounter with the man and his ‘pen.’ If that means that I may mistakenly yell at an innocent bystander who meant no harm, so be it. Even accompanied by embarrassment, the feeling of empowerment trumps the feeling of disgust and degradation.