Why do women walk so briskly in public?

Published October 6, 2015
I used to think that if I justify my existence with an urgent purpose, perhaps they'll forgive me for being out in public. —Creative Commons image, courtesy of Penny Lam on Flickr.
I used to think that if I justify my existence with an urgent purpose, perhaps they'll forgive me for being out in public. —Creative Commons image, courtesy of Penny Lam on Flickr.

Two years ago, in my freshman year, I was walking with a friend to my favourite teacher’s office. When we entered, he told us he'd seen us through the window and recognised us from a distance just by the way we walked. "He [my male friend] has that amble and you have that brisk walk, like you’re really busy." I laughed at the comment, but it actually led to a realisation.

I have studied in all girls’ institutions since puberty. From class six to my A levels, I was considered a loiterer by teachers; the child who was never sent out of class to grab a photocopy or perform some other chore because I would take forever.

I didn’t walk, I skipped, I ambled, I walked backward whilst talking to a friend, I sang to myself, I swung around banisters and pillars. I stopped to pet a cat. Sometimes, I stopped in my tracks just to look at the sky or soak in the sounds of the school. Nothing about me was brisk.

The first time I was catcalled at my co-ed college, I wasn’t even enrolled there yet, I was just there for an entrance exam. When the term started, it got both better and worse.

Better in that as women know, there is safety in numbers, and I felt much more secure when walking in a group with friends.

Worse, because now there were far greater numbers of the boys from the (all-boys) intermediate section on campus. Like every woman, I was guarded and careful when on the street, but I was not used to feeling like the 'other' simply walking to class.

I was constantly ill at ease. I was constantly anxious. I considered withdrawing from college.

I like to be alone and I like to wander. In every educational institution that I had been in until now, I had the unrestricted freedom to do both of those things. Suddenly, I did not. The lush, sprawling campus that I had been so drawn to when I applied to my university was not one that I was 100 per cent free to explore.

Someone from the administration suggested I take a male friend with me when going to the all-boys Intermediate section of the campus. A friend told me not to go to a certain place after a certain time because something "unpleasant" had happened to his ex-girlfriend there.

Such warnings were made by well-meaning people who had my best interests at heart. They were sincere. I only regret that they were necessary.

Also read: Woman in public: body language born of fear-I and II

I am nothing but grateful towards my college administration for their support and concern for women who report sexual harassment on campus. They had a policy of disciplinary warnings and action against catcalling and eve-teasing.

If you could identify in a crowd of school uniforms, the source of a catcall, memorise a name or roll number, and take time out of your day to write a report, and later in the week, identify the guilty party, then you could be rest assured that the boy in question would face consequences.

But you can imagine how many times and how many women managed to do that.

Nevertheless, now in my senior year, incidents of harassment are significantly rarer and I feel almost entirely safe, which is due, at least in part, to the administration’s policies.

As much as I tried to use the official channel for dealing with harassment, and as much as I tried to confront, I did not do either of these things as much as I changed my own behaviour; the way I dressed, and how and how much I walked around. I walked fast, but never ran – my footsteps became short and precise. My posture became even worse.

All of my movements became calculated and minimal instead of whimsical. And that is how I came to be “brisk”.

Apart from the obvious purpose of being brisk – moving as quickly as possible through an environment you feel insecure in and thus reducing the time spent in that environment – there is a deeper psychological reasoning behind it:

I realised that I walk briskly because I feel that if I look very busy and send the message that I have a very important reason for being in this space, perhaps men around me will think I have a right to go on my way un-harassed, untouched, un-bothered.

Subconsciously, I used to think that if I justify my existence with an urgent purpose, perhaps they'll forgive me for being out in public. It takes one boy to instill in you a fear of them all. By the time, several have violated your space psychically, verbally or even just by staring, it will take months of conscious mental effort to breathe freely in an environment dominated by unknown males.

Every girl I talked to on campus had had a similar, or worse, experience. To be a woman in public is to be on your guard, all the time.

The worst part was, I was not even a woman in public – I was in, what was supposed to be a safe and protected environment.

And many people reading this will argue that I was safe – I didn’t come to any bodily harm, did I?

No one raped me, or even tried; no one even physically assaulted me, did they?

How much safety can you really ask for, as a woman sharing a campus with men?

These reactions wouldn’t surprise me, and they will come from women, as well as from men. I know this because every older woman – aunties, family friends, friends’ mothers – who heard me complain about this, told me the same thing: keep your head down, there’s no need to report such things, we all got used to it and so will you.

I have little to say about the fact that generations of women have gotten used to be being treated as subhuman just for being in public space. What I have to say is this:

Do not keep your head down. Do not get used to it. Do not tell yourself or other girls they can fend off unwanted male attention by changing their own behaviours or reactions. Do not stop confronting. If you can humiliate a man who has harassed you in public, do it. Do not let anyone tell you you are overreacting. Do not let a man who touched you or catcalled you walk away, validated by your silence.

But also, if on any given day, you fail to do any of these things (because you are human and tired and scared), do not blame yourself.

Two years on, I walk less brisk, and worry less about what I wear. On my co-ed campus, I will never again be as carefree as the girl I was in my school years. But I am much, much closer. I would say that that I am 80 per cent comfortable. I walk where I want and I do it alone.

I will still avoid large groups of uniformed boys, but I know what to do if they decide to throw inappropriate comments at me; if they try to take a picture of me or whistle at me.

I’ll sit where I want, often alone. I’ll stop and feel the sun on my face if I want. I remind myself, whenever I need to, that these boys cannot hurt me, and that nothing I wear or do “causes” harassment, so I might as well do what I want.

In other words, I am now no longer afraid as I used to be. The most detrimental part of street harassment is the fear it instills in women; this fear causes us to restrict our movements. And that, along with many other factors, is how you get a city where there is one woman to 50 men out in public on a good day.




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