In Australia, I attended the Women’s March 4 Justice, an event that proved how much has changed, and what still remains the same.
[CW: The following piece discusses sexual violence.]
The first time I can remember, it was an uncle putting his hand up the back of my shirt, feeling for what would not be there for years. I was six or seven, and when he was done with the top he started on the bottom. Hand in my pants, another on his crotch. I had no idea what was going on, but instinctually realized that telling somebody would be a bad idea. A few years later, a cousin told me he did that with everybody and that the adults let him. So, he would leave his daughters alone for a while.
They called it “protection.”
I am on my way to the March 4 Justice demonstration at Town Hall. Thirty-five years ago, I was doing the same. There was a group of us then, as there is now. We were dressed in our rebel finest: jeans with two dresses on top, one shorter than the other, straight from the op shop. Long hair held together with an orange net, stolen from the fruit that morning, and a leather jacket pilfered from the local firies [firemen]. We were as furious as I am at the moment. In fact, I am probably angrier now. Then, I was just shouting for myself and my friends. Now, there is my daughter and, even worse, two granddaughters. The idea of them at the receiving end of this same shit fills me with rage. And yet, I know that it will happen. Some man will put his hands on them, and I will not be there to hack them off.
When I was ten, my parents went on holidays and left us in the care of one of my mother’s sisters. For a week, it was great. She lived on a farm and we had never seen a headless chicken before. Then she got sick and had to go to the hospital. We ended up with another aunt and that is where it went wrong. Or maybe, as Marina Hyde recently wrote in The Guardian, it was another one of those “nothings.”
Now, there is my daughter and, even worse, two granddaughters. The idea of them at the receiving end of this same shit fills me with rage. And yet, I know that it will happen. Some man will put his hands on them, and I will not be there to hack them off.
That night, my little sister and I slept in a room together and when we got up to go to the toilet a few hours later, we found my cousin asleep in front of our door. He was older than us, almost 13, and we looked up to him. But we knew nothing, so when he told us that he was there so his father couldn’t get in, we didn’t understand what he was talking about. He called it “protection.”
By the time my friends and I took to the streets in 1976, all of us knew what we were talking about. We hadn’t started telling each other yet, though, because we were embarrassed. Young girls, everything about sex we found confusing and a bit yucky.
We wouldn’t discover consent for some time (or enjoyment, for that matter) and for most of us sex was something you did because you had to; it was part of the deal. What we protested against was the violence on the streets. It didn’t even cross our minds to look to our boyfriends, our fathers, uncles, brothers, neighbors. When we shouted, at the top of our lungs, that “the witches are back,” we meant that we were going to self-defense classes in order to protect ourselves out there, against men we didn’t know and were considering us “fair game,” as one of them once told me. “If you are out on your own at night, you are asking for it,” he said after he had dragged me off my bicycle on my way home. It was 7:00 p.m.; I was 14. I hit him with my bike chain, drawing blood from his right ear. He was furious. “Little bitch,” he shouted and struck me in the face with his first. When I got home, I went straight to my room, telling my mother I felt a bit fluey. I never told my parents anything. I called it “protection.”
I’m on the street now, surrounded by placards that read my mind. “Rape is a men’s issue. It’s about time they address it.” “Rule of law, my arse!” “We shouldn’t have to do this.” “Be thankful we want justice and not revenge.” And my personal favorite: “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit.” There are thousands of us, and I can see a lot of women of my vintage who have been here, done that, and now have to wear the T-shirt again. “Enough,” I yell, and suddenly I realize I am crying. Tears are streaming over my face and I can’t stop. I am not a crier, ever, really, and don’t do emotion in public. But there it is; all the anger and the sadness and the frustration and the deep, deep exhaustion. I am in the middle of the crowd and am embarrassed. Again. That is how we are raised. A young woman with a baby in a pram steps forward and puts her arm around me. She says nothing, just strokes my hair. I feel protected.
I was 15 when I was raped the first time. We were at a disco, dancing to Tina Turner, and after an hour or so I went to the toilet. When I came out of the cubicle, somebody grabbed me from behind and pushed me against the wall. With his hand around my throat, he assaulted me from behind, leaving a trail of blood, teeth marks, and bruises. Two months later, I realized I was pregnant. I knew I couldn’t go to my GP, because he was a friend of my parents. And they could never know. I borrowed money, went to an abortion clinic, and had a “termination,” as it was called. Years later, when I wanted a child, they found out that most of my fallopian tubes were missing. The doctor who had done the abortion had removed them, because, he wrote in his report, it was clear that “this girl” was “a bit loose with morals.” He called it “protection.”
I yell, and suddenly I realize I am crying. Tears are streaming over my face and I can’t stop. I am not a crier, ever, really, and don’t do emotion in public. But there it is; all the anger and the sadness and the frustration and the deep, deep exhaustion.
When I got back today, I was exhausted. Not from the walking or the shouting, but because of the repetitiveness of it all. “How do you talk about this with your friends?” I asked my husband when I came in. For a moment, Jim was quiet. “We don’t,” he answered. Suddenly I was angry again. “So, you tell me that all of you know women who have been at the receiving end of this … your wives, sisters, daughters, girlfriends, friends, even your mothers … and you don’t talk about it? What the hell is wrong with you?” I told him about the man on the train up to Sydney today, who sat next to me and started to push against my arm. “You look like a dyke,” he said, “what are you writing on that laptop? Can I see? Show me? Fuck, dyke, show me.” It was another one of those “nothings.” There were lots of people around and when I started yelling at him, he backed off.
A long time ago, I taught Jim the etiquette of street behavior. Don’t walk behind a woman, pretend to talk to your mother on the phone, don’t do anything that can come across as threatening, cross the road if you have to. He had never realized that women, all women, are afraid. All the time, wherever they are. He had taken his responsibilities then. Now, I was a tad annoyed that I had to ask again, that it wasn’t bloody obvious. Talk to your friends, do some conscious raising of your own, be part of the solution. I showed him the picture of the sign at the rally: “If you are not furious, you have not been paying attention.” And I remembered what we were shouting all those years ago: “Don’t stand on the sidelines, be part of the human race.”
Or, in its 2021 incarnation: “Women don’t need men to protect us. We need them to stop protecting each other.”