I was doing my usual exercise walking in the streets early in the morning. Ahead of me, about 100m away, I saw a woman walking towards me. She walked slowly, in casual working clothes, smallish, middle-aged, normal. As we got to within 30m, she veered on to the road, as if to cross to the other side. I kept walking. We passed without recognition, a parked car between us.
The strange thing was…there was no footpath on the other side of the road. After we passed, I turned to see that she had come back on to the footpath behind me. Why had she done this?
This has happened to me quite a few times over the years. The woman (never a man) veers across the road to the footpath on the other side. It appears to be a deliberate avoidance action. More frequently, the woman keeps walking past me on the same footpath, but she puts her head down to avoid eye contact.
Am I so threatening?
I’m quite tall. For early morning exercise walking, I walk fast, purposefully, dressed in runners, a cap, a tracksuit. I try to say ‘hello’ to other people out early in the morning, often exercising. It’s friendly. My mother encouraged it when we walked together some 10 years ago.
Or is it just that I am a man? For some women, maybe that’s enough, if they are alone, lonely, small or frightened, perhaps from some other experience with a man earlier in their lives.
As the scale of domestic violence and sexual abuse unfolds in ours and other societies, and as I talk to strong feminist women and hear and read about the verbal abuse they receive from just expressing their opinions, I’m slowly coming to the unwanted conclusion that just being a man makes me a potential threat to women. When pressed, many women will tell you of how they have experienced verbal or even physical harassment in public places, so even a single significant incident in a lifetime can be enough to make them change their behaviour when out alone.
For a person who believes in and tries to practise gender equity, this is really sad for me. To realise that – just by being a man – I might be perceived as a risk.
When the evidence shows that so many women are abused by men they know, which men can a woman trust? Probably not a stranger in the street, tall, fit, walking purposefully, in runners, capable of getting away quickly.
What is wrong in our society when a woman feels she can’t walk past a man in the street for fear of what might happen to her?
How can men make women feel safe?
I try nodding at a distance, to indicate recognition. Then I try saying ‘hello’, because even the exchange of a single word seems to reduce the barrier, to offer friendliness, to help relax. I try smiling too, but I’m rather serious and my smile doesn’t always appear when it would be of most benefit. Some friends I walk with are good at making a quick engaging positive comment, but the right words don’t seem to tumble from my mouth to disarm, engage, get a response or a smile. And if the woman has her head down, or if she crosses the road to avoid me, these approaches won’t work.
I thought the social revolutions that we have been through had broken down the barriers, made women increasingly equal. But it seems many men don’t share that view, or don’t want equality. They treat women badly and women’s behaviour reflects their lived experience. That’s what the domestic violence and sexual abuse commissions are showing, not only in Australia, but elsewhere.
As an individual, I’ll keep trying. But I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that, in our society – men need to really have their/our behaviour changed, if women are to truly be treated equally. What do you think?