Current speculation is that I’m “Trini,” or, at least, so was speculated out loud by a man as I walked passed him on my way home. “You’re so gorgeous. Are you Trini?” he called out. “Is she Trini?” asked his friend, loud enough to be heard by me. “I don’t know,” said the first man, “I don’t think she can hear me. Can you hear me gorgeous? I just want to talk to you.”
A little over a year ago, a man sexually assaulted me. I had started working at a place that mandated late-night shifts. On the third or fourth night of my working there, as I was walking back to the station to take the train home, a man started following him. It was a pitch black night and the streets were swept clean of life. Judging by his lips and nose, and then the rest of him, he was White. He began calling after me, and as I ran, he ran too, until he caught up with and dragged me to the closest off-road. He said that he would kill me and began touching parts of my body that I wish I could’ve set fire to. It ended when I bit him and ran with whatever bit of life I had left in me. The next day I quit that job and started searching for new work, and then I went about my life as it had been. I can’t bring myself to return to that neighborhood, even when it is day, because I am afraid.
Fear is something that was taught to me at an early age. I lived in Bangladesh for several years and was raised Muslim. The Islam that I was taught, not the true Islam, but the Islam that has been perverted to suit the needs of the patriarchy, dictated that I should look down and away from a man, and to cover myself, not for purposes of modesty and self-respect, but so as not to attract attention from men. There it is popularly believed that rape is a woman’s fault, as it other hate-crimes, such as throwing acid in a woman’s face. Men were almost never given the task of accepting responsibility. I believed that this belief system was a consequence of living in a country like Bangladesh. When a man called out or touched, I stayed quiet, never telling anyone but always running in fear, and then locking myself in a bathroom a crying, because I hated my skin and everything on its surface.
When I moved to the America, not much was different. I had been countlessly followed home, harassed in public and private spheres, and I stayed quiet. When a woman is harassed, it is almost immediately asked by friends, family and legal authorities what the harassers race was. If he is Black, or Latino, it is dismissed and accredited to a lack of education, values, morals, everything under the sky. It is expected for a woman to respond with “Black” or “Latino;” when a harasser is a White man, not much is said of it, or is often unbelievable. One time I was on the train on an afternoon, when a White, relatively sane-looking man across from me unzipped his pants and masturbated, staring at me as he did so until he came, and then he left at the next stop. I joke about this incident with friends, but at that time I hated myself for being myself. After years of being sexually harassed, and then sexually assaulted, I find it difficult to look at people when I speak to them; I am afraid of crowded and small spaces, and I get anxiety when having to visit an unfamiliar place or meet new people. Till I was about nineteen, I mostly wore boys’ clothing — baggy, oversized, far removed from the body — because I wanted to be as far removed from my body as possible. The tools women and young girls are given to equip themselves to face harassment with are shame and, my personal favourite, fear.
I recently moved to New York, and when I told people that I would be living on the border of Bed-Stuy (which apparently has a legacy of cat-calling) and Bushwick, I was asked by many people, men and women alike, “Aren’t you going to be afraid of the cat-calling?” “No,” I replied, “it happens everywhere and anywhere.” Again, fear. A few weeks ago I was on the J train, when a man sat down next to me and began speaking to me. I had headphones on and the music played at a low volume. I ignored him as he spoke to me, and then he put his hand on my leg. A man interjected, a stranger, shouting at the man beside me and an argument ensued. I stayed quiet, and got off at my stop. I felt disgusted with myself, thinking that had I not worn these tights that were so sheer, I would not have been harassed. Here, shame. And never one blaming the man involved.
I think it is Camille Paglia, whom I love and hate, I am almost certain that it is her, or perhaps not, or perhaps it is a manifestation of my own mind, but I read a piece about rape, and in it the person whom I think is Camille Paglia argued that women should not be quiet and docile when faced with harassment, rather that is the moment to unleash their inner psychopath, to scream and swear to the point of the harasser’s exhaustion, to induce fear upon the harasser. It is an exercise of power; it is saying, “Don’t mess with this psycho bitch.” In victimization, you will never be safe. I was walking to my apartment one morning, when a friendly neighbor called out, “Good morning, gorgeous. Can’t you hear me? I just wanted to tell you that your ass is so damn gorgeous.” The men in my neighbourhood are under the belief that I am deaf. After walking past him, eyes on the ground and fists stuffed in my pockets, and stopped, turned, and went back to where the man stood. “You fucking bastard,” I screamed, “I’ll tear your eyeballs out and shove it up your anal cavity, you fucking bastard. Don’t you ever dare disrespect a woman. If you ever do, I will know. I know where you live and I’ll skin you alive.” Passersby stopped and watched; the man hurried up his steps and went into his apartment. To stay silent and for there to be no consequence is to perpetuate a cycle of harassment that has no end in sight. Yes, I fear for my life, and to scream and shout may have consequences in itself, but that does not mean that silence is inconsequential. If I’m going down, I’m not doing so without a fight.
When the two men were speculating as to whether I was from Trinidad, I stopped and screamed again. I screamed until it hurt, because I was hurting, because I was hurting for so many other women, because I was hurting from my silence. I am my own protector, not a lamb or a wolf, but a crazy bitch. “Let’s get out of here,” one man said to the other. “This bitch is crazy.” And I will tell you this, that I no longer feel unsafe anymore, not the victim, not the lamb, because I am fighting for myself, and that is the most exhilarating feeling. I won’t take $20 cab rides back to my own home because this is my home, and I won’t allow anyone to make it feel otherwise.