I’m going to tell you a story about a man, a woman, and a bobble.
Picture the scene. A small, dimly lit bar. Two young women, chatting animatedly. And a man, sat on his own, watching.
Fast forward half an hour. The man has somehow inveigled his way into the female circle of trust. The women wear strained expressions, cracks appearing in their polite façade. They clearly want to be left alone, to be free of this unwanted intrusion into their evening, but the man lingers, either unaware of their discomfort or uncaring.
One of those women is me. The man: his name is Raj. And the bobble? Well. Allow me to explain.
At one point, as I was dancing with my friend, trying desperately hard to pretend that Raj didn’t exist, I decided to tie back my hair.
Raj stared at me, agog. “Why are you doing that?” he asked me, gesturing to my hair. “Your hair is so beautiful. I mean, you look beautiful with it up, but well,” he said emphatically, pausing for effect. “With it down, you are more beautiful!”
By this stage of the evening, however, the compliments were wearing a little thin, as was my patience.
“Thank you,” I said, through gritted teeth, “but I am feeling very hot and uncomfortable and it’s getting in the way.”
He merely continued to gape at me in disbelief, as if my refusal was the last thing he expected.
He asked me to take it down. I refused. He asked again. I refused, again, this tine feeling rage bubbling up inside me. Why wasn’t he listening to me?
Two minutes later, I was surprised to find my hair tumbling messily down around my face. Raj held my bobble aloft with a smile of victory, as if to say, “There. That’s better.”
I wish I could explain how angry I felt in this moment. It wasn’t just that I had expressly asked him not to do something but he had gone ahead and done it anyway. It was that this one small, seemingly inconsequential gesture, summed up everything that was wrong with our exchange that night.
It was an act of entitlement, pure and simple. It was an act of power. And this is what it said to me. I’m a man and I like you. I want you. And I want you to look a certain way because it pleases me. And nothing that you say or do is going to change that. Whatever you think, whatever you feel: doesn’t matter. It’s what I want that matters.
And so, this one small but significant act felt like a violation. Of my personal space, of my own personal wishes, of the nice evening I had planned with my friend. And it felt like an invalidation. Because even the strongest of “no”s was being interpreted as a “yes, please continue”. And when even a red light is seen to be green, what can there be except blind chaos?
I was lucky, really. Another man might have grown angry at my refusal. Shouted at me. Called me a slut. He might have tried to follow me home. Or he might have tried to force himself upon me in other ways which I would rather not think about.
But Raj was not the first, and he will surely not be the last. I can laugh about it now, but it’s a sad truth that I do not know one female friend, relative or colleague who does not have at least one story of harassment or abuse, both large and small.
The Everyday Sexism project was founded by Laura Bates for this very reason – to give voice to countless instances of sexism and misogyny that normal women experience in their everyday lives: on the street; in the workplace; in bars and clubs; on public transport; on holiday.
Because the fact is that misogyny doesn’t just come in one obvious guise. It’s not just the one crazed gunman who unleashes retribution on the “sluts” who reject him and the “brutes” who thwart him. It’s not just the couple of police officers who are complicit in the brutal gang rape and murder of two young teenage girls.
These crimes are real and yes, they are horrific, but they spring from a common well. Entitlement is an ugly force in our society, whatever form it takes, and it poisons that well. It is the means by which the strong oppress the weak, and take by force what is not theirs to take, without fear of reprisal.
We can try and pretend that it only happens out there, in other places, but the truth is that it exists right here, right now, and everyone you know is affected.
UK, the figures paint their own picture. A woman has around a one-in-five chance of being the victim of a sexual offence, and a one-in-four chance of being the victim of domestic violence. And in Englandand Walesalone, seven women per week are killed, on average, by current or former partners.
So what can we do? I believe that the only way to fight back is to speak up and take action – together. It’s not enough for women to speak up about their experiences, as I have done, although it’s a start. We need men on side too. Men who are not afraid to speak out when they see or hear harmful or offensive attitudes or behaviours playing out – whether it’s on the street or on the pitch, in the locker room or in the boardroom.
I am not ashamed to call myself a feminist because I believe that men and women, both, deserve to be treated with mutual respect – and sexism and misogyny hurt us all.
In the question and answer session which followed, I mentioned that I had written a second version of this paper which was framed in a more controversial manner. This paper opened with the question: "What do Raj the IT Consultant from Delhi and British-born mass murderer Elliot Rodger have in common?"
I made it clear that I, in no means, meant to belittle the tragedy of the shooting in Santa Barbara, California, by comparing it to bobble-stealing, but the point that I wanted to make was that there was something in common between these two incidents, and that was the underlying prevailing attitude of the two men: one of entitlement and objectification.
The Chair expressed an opinion that perhaps I was making too great a leap by drawing such a comparison, and in the end, I wonder whether I may have lost some marks for this, but I absolutely do not regret saying what I did; and, in fact, I was really pleased when one of the male delegates jumped in to my defence. He agreed with my position and felt that it wasn't too great a leap to make, because as long as these underlying sexist and misogynistic attitudes remain unchallenged and unchecked in our society, then unfortunately it just creates a climate where more serious incidents of violence against women will continue to happen.