Look Over Your Shoulder

The sun is just starting to rise when the first glint of light from the approaching train splashes along the snow-covered embankment. In a matter of moments the train arrives at the platform. As it comes to a stop you reach out to press the illuminated green button, and although you’ve done this hundreds of times, you’re afraid of what you might see when the doors open.

You take a deep breath to steady the jelliness in your knees and for a fraction of a second consider going back home. But you can’t. Work awaits, and you have to be downtown in 40 minutes. Trying not to appear too paranoid, you glance at the newcomers on the platform behind you. He has snuck up on you before.

When the doors open, you scan the faces of the people standing by the door and those seated nearby. Nothing. You exhale and step onto the train, taking another quick look around just to be sure. It’s been several months since you last saw him, but you don’t fully relax. He could board at a different station, or appear farther back where you can’t get a clear view. You swallow hard, knowing that if he does spot you, it will start again.

The knot in your stomach blooms into nausea when you consider what you should do if you see him. You’ll have to make a judgement call. Should you get off the train? That could be risky. Make some sort of deliberate scene? Maybe you could just distance yourself. No, you think – it’s often too packed to get far enough away, and he has the advantage of making it look like an accident that he’s pressed up against you.

By now you know that it’s no accident. The scenery slides by the large windows of the train, and you think of all the times he emerged from the shadows alongside the station where you used to park your car; how often you’d look up to see him standing directly beside you or turn around to find him there. And he didn’t have the feeling of a friendly stranger on the same schedule. No. Oddly, though you could often feel his eyes on you, he never smiled – and you certainly had no desire to express warmth toward him either.

You recall how unnerved you felt when you began to see him more and more frequently. It didn’t matter if you were earlier than usual, on time, or running late. The disquiet you felt the first time he de-boarded at your stop was palpable, and when you turned around to see him still there after several city blocks, you went into a coffee shop to wait it out. You didn’t want him to know where you worked. The daily haunts continued.

Even so, back then you told yourself that you were being silly. You live in Canada, where women are safe. It wasn’t like New York, where nearly 1,000 women are victims of some form of violence every day. Canadian cities aren’t like the viral videos you’ve seen, of cities like Boston, where it’s commonplace for females to be catcalled and harangued on busy streets. Women all over the world are bought and sold and treated like animals – but not in Canada, you reassured yourself. Women here are safe.

The day you spotted him on the platform on your way home after work, you didn’t feel so safe. Your heart sunk as you tried to convince yourself that it was just another coincidence, that he was a stranger waiting for the train. Stubbornly, you refused to move to another train car. Why should you be inconvenienced?

Of course, you should have listened to that voice inside, telling you that something was wrong. But you didn’t. And as a result he orchestrated yet another scenario in which he was much too close. This time though, on the fully packed train, when you tried to push away he pressed closer still.

You felt his breath on the crook of your neck, in your ear. Mortified, you registered an unmistakable rigidness pressed against you, as you stood cornered in a sea of standing strangers. In that moment you thought you might scream, but were instead inexplicably paralyzed. There was nowhere you could go. You were trapped.

It shouldn’t have surprised you when he de-boarded at your stop and immediately vanished into an ocean of commuters. Shaken, you found your way to your car, got in and locked the doors. You watched until you felt like it was safe to go, then cautiously drove out of the parking lot.

When you glanced in your rear view mirror at a red light, he was there in the car behind you. Your heart seemed to twist unnaturally in your chest. There was no question. He was following you.

You were afraid, close to hysteria. You pulled into the nearest gas station and went inside, absent-mindedly flipped through a magazine until you were positive that he was nowhere in sight. After that you drove around for a long time, checking frequently to make sure he wasn’t behind you. That night when you finally got home, you called the police.

Scornfully, the woman on the other end of the line asked why you’d waited so long to call. She said it was a serious thing, your being harassed – that’s what she called it. You didn’t want to say why you hadn’t called; you didn’t want to admit how vulnerable you felt.

She recommended that you form a safety plan, change your routine and your route. You had to randomize your timing, at least for a while. You were advised to stay with a crowd, though that approach hadn’t been particularly helpful thus far. Even so, she explained, a crowd was still better than being alone.

As a precaution you began to park your car at a different train station. You bought some dog repellent to carry in your purse, even though the salesman made it explicitly clear that it was not to be used on humans. Perhaps you had that look about you, a person who was afraid of something on two legs.

You wondered if a lot of women were buying such tools for self-protection. The parkade is dark and there aren’t any security cameras. What else were you supposed to realistically do?

The salesman had you repeat after him, “I need this for coyotes and stray dogs,” as you glared across the sales counter.

You were told to be more vigilant from now on, and to tell the people in your life what was happening. It hurt your pride to admit to your boyfriend how much things had escalated, as you stood crying in the kitchen. It hurt your heart to tell your parents, because you didn’t want them to worry about you. You had to tell your bosses and coworkers, too. It was crushing to admit that you didn’t feel safe in a crowd of people.

And although garnering support from your network made you feel a little better, it was still humiliating. Humiliating that you had to do any of these things in the first place. Humiliating how the men in your life offered to find him and scare him off. To rough him up. Break his legs. Worse.

You felt like a child. As far as the police were concerned, nothing had actually happened yet. Yet, they said. Fuck it, you had though. You’d deal with it yourself.

The train came to an abrupt stop. Fellow passengers alternately sighed and checked the time as the conductor announced a slight delay.

You noticed how tense you are. Why are you dwelling on this again, for what was probably the hundredth time? You tell yourself you should put it out of your mind – it’s a horrible way to spend your time. But suddenly you realized that’s the problem. The point: No one wants to think about it.

No one wants to hear that harassment is a form of violence, a violence that can intensify gradually or explode quickly and seemingly without warning. No one wants to believe that it affects them or talk about how these things are happening to women in their own backyard.

No one’s talking about how last month, within the span of one week, two Calgary women were attacked and violently sexually assaulted. Both had been using public transit when the attacks happened.

As you stare out the train window, you wonder why no one seems to be talking about it. You glance at other passengers. No one seems concerned.

You know from news reports that one of the victims was a 17 year old girl who was forcibly taken from a bus stop near her home. She was beaten and repeatedly sexually assaulted by two men until she managed to escape her captors many hours later. The other was a 30 year old woman, found critically injured and left for dead in a wooded area near a train station across town. The two assaults were not related, the authorities said.

How wrong they were.

When violence like this happens to a woman ten minutes from the office in which you work and to a girl down the street from where you and your ex-husband first moved in together, it becomes very real. When you have taken that same train and the exact same bus route countless times; when you’ve had your own issues on the train and in the city streets, it hits home.

And as the train begins to move again, you can’t stop thinking – were these women being harassed by their assailants prior to the attacks? Did they know their foe, or were they mutual strangers on a transit platform?

The train slows at its final approach into the downtown core and you remember that today is the last of an activism campaign for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. You’d been meaning to write something about this each day along the way, but what? It’s a mouthful, and it’s not pleasant to think about, nor talk about. But something needs to be said.

You take in the ads plastered on billboards along the train route; women in various stages of undress, and you’re bewildered as to what they are supposed to be selling. It occurs to you. Violence against women starts as a seed, an idea. Our society – the media, advertising, pop-culture – all of these outlets perpetuate the theme that women’s bodies are not their own.

Women are tools used to sell, objects for mass consumption. These mediums spew the message with an ever-intensifying fervour that women are a commodity; one that is to be consumed, exploited and used.

Women are there for the taking. You think of your daughter on her way to school, of the teenage girl who was waiting for a bus to arrive, and of the woman in intensive care who will never be the same.

You’ve heard people say that women in these situations somehow provoke their assailants, that these kinds of assaults are motivated by a woman’s clothing or the way she acts.

You know better than that – you mind your business on the train, keep to yourself. Every day, regardless of the temperature, you wear a knee-length jacket on your way to and from work. Hell, you’re wearing it now. It doesn’t matter what you wear. There are people in your midst who mean to harm you regardless of those details.

It’s because you’re a woman.

The train comes to a stop and when the doors open, you step out into the brisk winter air. You begin to make your way down the platform and as you do, you glance over your shoulder.

You look over your shoulder because that’s the way it is. You look over your shoulder because contrary to popular belief, it still isn’t safe to be a woman.

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