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Reflections on navigating ‘womanhood’ in the 21st century

(i wrote this back in august which seems like a couple of weeks ago because of my distorted perception of time thanks to covid)


i still haven’t cracked it. i have yet to reconcile the many paradoxes, the unattainable expectations, yet the damning constraints. spoiler, sometimes it really is overwhelming.

a decision to wear a skirt above the thigh, for instance, is allegedly ‘empowered’, yet to many, it still is a green flag for judgement, belittlement, and objectifying looks that can make a girl question her safety walking down the street. women are encouraged to be independent beings yet at the same time, in many ways this is contradicted and undermined.

growing up as a girl has made me 'paranoid', uncomfortable in the public arena that is society. my guard is always up and embedded in me is a tendency to expect the worst. i’m constantly fearful (both in the day and night – male hubris doesn't exclusively ‘lurk in the dark’) and overprotective of my friends. what’s worse is that on too many occasions these feelings have been justified. it’s not paranoia. it is sadly realism.

the impossible, catch-22 reality for a woman in the 21st century.

i say catch-22 because i think even while we find ourselves engulfed in the most permissive society, a zeitgeist which has over time, slowly flowered into one more empathetic and forgiving to those not born white-cis-male than before, the anachronistic foundations of the ‘female reality’ remain largely intact.

a woman’s reality today is underpinned by the values originally created by men lessening women to weak, inferior, fickle objects.

and therefore it is difficult, at least i find it is, to escape this problem.

the truth is, and I hate to say this, I find myself perpetually feeling unsafe as a woman.

i'm fed up of feeling small, a loss of independence – feeling fear, that isn’t irrational or paranoia, but rather entirely instilled with realism. i'm angry.

i don't feel safe walking home alone at night as a girl/woman. when i do, i feel as though i could be risking my life.

there have been so many occasions that i can't even recall all of them, where i've had that feeling. the feeling that this is it. bluntly, that this is the point where i get raped. i get this feeling in my throat, i feel a sensation like my heart has sunken into itself. it's not an isolated incident. it's not a case of ‘oh it was pitch black’ or ‘i was drunk’ or ‘i was wearing (insert "promiscuous"/"predator-demanding" clothing choice)' (unsure as to how any of these 'excuses' still hold credibility).

whether i'm walking home in the dark afternoon/evening/broad daylight, be it from the gym, from university, from the tube station, or just walking through the street, running in the park in the daytime, i've been catcalled/wolf-whistled at (whatever you want to call it), shouted and sworn at from car windows, almost rammed at by men on motorbikes, honked at, and followed.

i thankfully have never been raped or assaulted, but in many of these kinds of predicaments, particularly the more extreme of them, i've had this feeling in my throat that i can't really describe. it’s almost like i know what’s coming. that this is it. my fear is merely a response to the female predicament in this world.

so many times i really did think it was it.

and i hate that this fear will reprise itself.

i hate that i have to be fearful. but it is a necessity.

when i was in hanoi last summer i had a particular moment of that ’this is it’ feeling. i had just come back from a trek with my group and all my clothes and shoes were soaked in mud and i was catching a flight the next morning – so having looked online, the local laundry shop (literally around the corner from the volunteer house where we were staying) was open 24/7. it was about 9pm, pitch black and the streets were barely lit and completely empty. it was around the corner – i knew the walk – so i walked over, but as i got nearer saw its lights were off and realised it was definitely shut. i saw a shadow of man just ahead of me who started approaching me and murmuring something quite intimidatingly. i'm not an author and by no means a skilled writer, so i'm not attempting to illustrate this dramatically – this is just as it happened. i think that the fear i felt at this point was one of the most intense i've ever felt. i started walking away in the direction back to the house, and he followed me. i started walking faster, and so did he. i then proceeded to run, sprint, and he did the same. my heart was racing, i thought i was going to die. i fumbled through my bag trying to find the keys for the padlock outside the gate as fast as i could. before he could slide in past the gate with me i managed to shut and lock it from the inside. he then stared at me and took out his keys from his bag. he was another volunteer (one i had never met before). he apologised and said he shouldn't have run after me. i apologised profusely and tried to laugh it off, but on the inside i felt like crying.

ideally (if i were a male) perhaps i wouldn’t have been scared by this man approaching and following me, and been able to find out he was another volunteer. the scenario probably would have played out in a completely different way. but the stakes are too high and reality is sinister. thinking about this now, his being a volunteer doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been dangerous – i’m not saying he was or wasn’t. i don't know. all i do know is that that throat-lump heart-sinking hopelessness instinctive sensation was at a high.

another ‘incident’ i've had several times is when walking home from the gym at night, cars driving past, it seemingly being a safe environment, i've been shouted/sworn at by men on their bikes or from their cars. as i said previously, one time some men on motorbikes decided it would be fun (i assume) to almost ram them into me, shouting sexualising remarks, as i walked on the pavement by the kerb. it was scary. on all of these occasions, i was in a black hoodie and leggings. just walking home discretely.

now of course, some might say, well, you shouldn’t walk home alone at night, it’s an insensible decision. but i can't stay overnight at the gym or any place for that matter just because it’s dark and i'm a woman.

in lockdown i've been going on runs and walks outside in broad daylight and i am currently now in a position where i feel uncomfortable whenever i do so, because of the amount of times men in their cars have honked or yelled or jeered or made sexualising remarks. (no, i'm not walking around in lingerie – but that's not the point. no matter what i wear, for some reason i'm being reduced to a naked object, while fully clothed).

i will always remember this one day when i was just 15 years old, walking home from the school bus stop, wearing my sports kit (again, the apparently 'promiscuous' leggings and hoodie) and a school backpack (i was 15...), and a group of men gave me looks, made noises and sexualising remarks as i walked past. i. was. 15. uncomfortable enough already with the struggles of puberty accompanied by society's unforgiving "beauty" standards that pervaded every form of media and forced down our throats. now added to that is the discomfort and insecurity from the unwanted, unwarranted, unsolicited sexualisation of my teenage body by grown men. there is a deeply domineering implication of a grown man deciding for a young girl that she be perceived in a sexual way. it's this feeling of a loss of control over my own body, even though i haven't even been physically touched.

i have never catcalled, wolf-whistled or plain-out shouted at a man from a car. i never would. i think it takes a lot to do something like that – putting yourself out there, contravening social norms. i have never seen a woman do this to a man.

humans tend to seek conformity as much as possible in social scenarios, and often excessively worry about how others perceive them – hence the desire for conformity. but in the scenario of an adult man driving past a girl/woman, choosing to yell out and honk is the opposite of a typical human tendency. is it because women are viewed as objects, or at least more object than a man?

I’ve always been free-spirited and independent. I suppose that comes with being an only child – having to get things done on your own and rely on yourself. So being in this predicament where I am not “allowed” to do simple things like walk home alone or else I am unsafe makes me angry. i feel restricted by my gender even though i’ve been raised to believe my gender should never act as a limitation. i never believed my independence and safety would be dichotomous. As a child I naively enjoyed my independence (the independence one has as a child), unaware that this would be, in many ways, somewhat stifled upon entering puberty, simply for existing as a female.

couple social anxiety with the constant fear of being sexually 'perceived' or harassed by unwarranted and predatory behaviour– behaviour which is so prevalent and commonplace that it surely must be considered “okay” at least for the predators themselves, who are probably just ordinary men. the reality is the men that do this can’t all fall under the archetypal "predator” — a 'lurker in the dark', stereotypical pervert. ordinary men, who are someone’s son, brother, father, engage in this behaviour. but to me, at least, it seems as though in these scenarios where a man feels he can publicly sexualise a female stranger, they become detached from their identities as ordinary humans (which they might very well be? I mean they are strangers so I don’t know and couldn’t tell you...but perhaps in the same way that they judge me, impose their hubris and conception of women on me, it's acceptable for me to make prejudgements about them and their ways of life...). just as women subjected to this behaviour become in the minds of predatory men, detached and separated from their identities as ordinary human beings, only to be seen for their bodies/vaginas. so yes, couple social anxiety with that. that fear— no, that lingering awareness — that you will constantly be perceived for your body. constantly an object over which men think they have a right to sexualise.

the existence of predators and predatory behaviour is so normalised that instead of addressing it, we blame girls and teach them that they must be cautious or it be their fault. girls must keep safe. don't be reckless. i have become overly cautious, desensitised almost. to accommodate men’s lack of ‘self-control’ or hubristic inability to not rape/force themselves on women?

this isn’t an essay, this has no clear structure, there is no conclusion or ‘prescriptive’ passage for society. because how the hell should i know? (although it might be nice to have men from a young age taught to not be predatory... that women's bodies are not theirs) (while i miss going out, the truth is i haven't missed turning around at a club to find some sweaty man grinding right behind me). all i do know is that i'm a girl who has just entered the already-overwhelming maze of adulthood, further overwhelmed by the complexities of an existence as a female in this world. (this is only one layer to it). the belittlement of women is so entrenched in our world that perhaps we can just blame these feelings of mine on my period.


//me voice: i am no writer nor wordsmith (not sure if it was obvious enough). it's safe to say the words don't come naturally. i write essays only out of obligation, thus this was destined to be poorly-written, shoddy and quite loquacious (good word tam ;)), but it was never intended to be an enchanting, eloquent piece of prose. i have taken the artistic (negligent) approach of imbuing my work... with a... sense of realism ;) convoluted like the maze of existing as a woman. ;)

this piece of ‘writing’ (can you really call it that lol) is just me reflecting and genuinely trying to figure out and gather my thoughts (hence the complete lack of coherence lol). no political agenda. no virtue signalling. just pure confusion and a sweet little melange of other different emotions <3

honey, i digress, do you think a written fiasco like this can be contrived? //

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