To be a woman in public is to be subject to glances, comments, sometimes touches that are unwelcome. A threatening murmur, often barely audible, underlies most interactions. Sometimes that murmur becomes a terrifying shout.
So it was a few weeks ago when I was walking home one morning. I had walked the spouse to work, and done a few errands, and had traversed the river using the beautiful and welcoming Adàwe Crossing.
I reached the intersection of North River Road and Donald St. at about the same time as a white van signalling to turn south from Donald onto North River. I started crossing North River Road . The van kept moving through the intersection. I lifted my hand to signal “stop” and kept walking. Maybe he hadn’t seen me? It was after 9 in the morning, no fog, no snow, so this seemed unlikely. Or maybe he was driving at me. (This blog post sums that up perfectly: Stop Fucking Driving your Car at People).
As I reached the other side, I heard him roll down his window and got that sinking feeling I often get when I’m out on my bike or on foot. He yelled at me, “Stop wasting my time, you fucking cunt. Some of us have to get to work.” I did not turn around, I did not stop, I just kept walking. He drove south. I walked home. I started shaking and crying. I was frightened and upset and hurt and outraged. Nobody has ever called me that before. I called the spouse at work, still weeping. Poor man. I scared him terribly, and he thought for a moment that some dreadful thing had happened to the children.
Indeed, the same dreadful thing had happened to one of the children the week before. Middle, walking home from the park one Sunday afternoon, had been crossing North River Road and had been called a fucking asshole for walking too slowly. He does walk slowly. He has a physical disability that is not readily visible, but it affects both fine and gross motor activities. That is not even the first time he’s been called that on our street. Last year he was crossing the road after getting off the schoolbus. The schoolbus lights were flashing and all traffic was stopped in both directions. A driver, waiting for him to cross, called him a fucking asshole then too. At the time he was eleven years old.
Let me be clear. On all three occasions, we were crossing the road legally and in possession of the right of way. It was daylight. The drivers yielded, obviously unwillingly, and then screamed their outrage at us. All three of these abusive drivers were men. I can tell you the effect of this. It made me afraid to leave my house during the day. I’m already afraid to leave the house at night, because the night is not a safe place for women. I can generally choose not to go out at night on my own, but to be kept indoors by fear of abuse during the day would be paralysis.
A few years ago, I was propositioned (that would be the polite word for it), in both official languages, mind, in the Beer Store parking lot nearby and so I don’t go to the Beer Store anymore. The spouse does that. Avoiding the Beer Store is one thing. I know few women who feel comfortable there, but if the breweries want to pursue a business model based mainly on purchases by men, that’s their own decision. It is a private enterprise. The public roadway is another matter altogether. No one owns that. It belongs to all of us together, and I’m damned if I’m going to be scared out of walking around my own neighbourhood by aggressive men in cars.
A few days later, I called the City of Ottawa about something else and was greeted by the following statement: “Please be advised that the City of Ottawa promotes an environment that is inclusive and supports dignity and respect for all its customers and employees, Inappropriate language will not be tolerated.” In other words: don’t call us up and swear at us. I’m sympathetic. I don’t want to be sworn at in the course of my day either.
I find the word customers rather transactional; I would prefer residents. But it did remind me that we are daily engaged in a transaction with our city, our province and our country. That transaction is known as the social contract. Under that contract, put most baldly, we surrender our freedom to the state, and the state provides us with protection of person and property in return. If I can’t walk around my neighbourhood without the fear that my children or I will be abused, the state is not living up to its part of that contract. By creating a physical environment that favours the power of the person in a motorized vehicle over the person without one, the city is failing to honour the social contract. The state needs to address the implicit imbalance of power between the hegemonic car, which has the power of life and death, and the powerless pedestrian or cyclist, which does not. It also needs to address the imbalance of power between the hegemonic male and the vulnerable female. Under the law, which is the articulation of the social contract, my child and I have the right to the same dignity and consideration as anyone else, even a man in a car. I would like my experience on the street to match the rights I have under the law.