By China Fish
My mother reminded me of a performance I did in response to this harassment I had whilst cycling on my bicycle as an undergraduate 10 years ago.
My name is China Fish and I am a performer, social justice campaigner and survivor of gender-based violence.
When I moved to Bristol to study, I was shocked at the amount of harassment I was subjected to on almost a daily basis. Amongst hundreds of experiences, I have been:
This is the reality that we as women face. Unfortunately there are a lot of men who feel so entitled, that they think it is OK to catcall, harass and make a woman feel vulnerable purely because they find her attractive. You may have seen recently, a young woman in Amsterdam who took selfies with every man that harassed her in order to prove the scale this happens on. They too, were happy to oblige which clearly shows, that they think this behavior is acceptable. There are now posters from campaign groups up throughout the city saying “Women are not your property”.
This behavior is more about wielding power and inciting fear, rather than the search for a life partner. If you dare to challenge this behaviour, you run the risk of it turning into aggression. Recently, an acquaintance of a friend did this very thing, and was punched in the face by the perpetrator, who also knocked her tooth out.
When you are so used to such a colourful array, perhaps that´s too nice a way to put it, of sexual abuse because of your gender, it becomes a normal part of life that you have to deal with and so you become accustomed to finding ways to navigate the city’s oppression. Before leaving my house, the checklist would be “keys, wallet, steel yourself”. I would try different tactics, cover up, wear baggy clothes, try to make myself smaller to not be seen, try to make myself bigger, tougher, I would cycle everywhere so I could escape fast. Despite efforts, nothing worked. I am still a woman. In the end I decided to move out of Bristol city centre and live in the countryside where I remain. You certainly get a lot less gender-based violence from sheep!
A 2017 Stanford study showed that, throughout the world, women walk disproportionately less than men in order to protect their safety. I have hundreds of female friends and acquaintances, such is the way in the social media age, who all have similar stories and the Everyday Sexism Project also demonstrates this.
In January 2016 I had a meeting with Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner Sue Mountstevens about several issues including trying to make street harassment a crime. I had read an article about Portugal and Brazil already doing so and having on the spot fines for such abuse. Sue was very supportive but encouraged me to build a case. I approached Bristol Zero Tolerance, who are working tirelessly to make Bristol a city free from gender-based violence and have been working with them ever since. We heard in June that year that Nottinghamshire Police had launched misogyny as a hate crime category and so built up a relationship with Nottingham Women’s Centre to learn how it came to be. I attended their police conference last year and we have been trying to follow their model for building a case since.
I was overjoyed to hear that Avon and Somerset Police are launching gender as a hate crime category. As you have heard, this is a much needed development for us and I believe, if we look at what success Nottingham have had, it will have positive ramifications in our community.
It won’t change things overnight and we of course have a long way to go but knowing that we will be believed, that we have some outlet for protection is so very important.
I spoke to Helen from Nottingham Women’s Centre who have worked with Chief Police Sue Fish on this hate crime category on Friday. She told me since their launch, they have had 130 reports with some going to prosecution. One woman who was harassed by a builder on a construction site while she was on her lunch break, reported to the police, who contacted the building company. They said they had a zero tolerant policy on this kind of behaviour and, told their workforce, if this happened again, there would be disciplinary measures taken. If anything, this launch of gender as hate crime may act as a deterrent.
We need to go forward spreading awareness to women throughout Bristol that they can report and we need to ensure appropriate training is in place with the police here. Nottingham had training from Hollaback, a grassroots initiative to combat street harassment, which was well received.
Beyond this we need to be educating young boys and girls in schools on how to have healthy relationships and communication, so that the next generation won’t be holding back from harassing due the possibility of being convicted, but because they have no desire to do so.
In a world of Harvey Weinsteins, of models with hairy legs receiving rape threats, where nine year old girls get followed by older men on their way home from school, we so desperately need to be finding ways to make our communities safer. Having this hate crime category is just one rung on the ladder to ensuring women and girls can walk the streets as human beings, simply walking. That day I will consider myself and my saddle, well and truly lucky.