Marco led me to the entrance of a dark alley. The streetlights were far off, and I could barely make out what lay ahead, seeing only dumpsters and a few homeless people huddled in a corner. I heard scurrying city rats. We were on our way to dinner. And we were running late.
“Let’s take this shortcut,” he said. “Or we’ll miss our restaurant reservation,” my 6’4” rugby-playing male friend added, matter-of-factly.
“If we went the long way, we would need another 30 minutes. This might not be the scenic route, but it will get us there.”
“Stop.” I said. “Stop!”
“At least it will get you there,” I retorted, poking at Marco’s side with my sharpest fingernail. “I would never go down this alley if I didn’t have you with me.”
He looked down at me, more than a foot shorter than he was. And he said nothing. But I saw a flicker of understanding in that moment.
I took advantage of his silence and continued: “That’s the thing! Most men will never understand the feeling of being unsafe that women carry around like excess baggage. This shit is heavy, my friend!”
Seeing that I had his full attention, I kept going. I might as well make this a teaching moment, I figured.
“Imagine the life I live, the restrictions on my freedom… I can’t do this, can’t wear that, can’t be alone, can’t walk down this dark alley… and if we do? Well then, we were warned!”
We started walking, but the point had hit home.
Over dinner, I told Marco about my work on sexual violence — trying to help women and girls get the services and support that they need if they had experienced violence or were at risk. And how I worked to try to prevent those things from happening in the first place. We’re all at risk, I explained, everywhere. And preventing these things from happening is next to impossible. But I tried, anyway. Because doing nothing just wasn’t an option.
“My job,” I explained, “was to try to help these women. Try.”
I told him about the women I met every day, in places like the Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Nepal, even New York. I told him about one young woman in Haiti, displaced after the 2010 earthquake. She was living in a camp, in a makeshift shelter built from plastic bags tied together at the edges.
When I met her, she was sitting next to her half-covered plastic dwelling, on an upside-down fruit crate, while her three small children played with a piece of tarp nearby.
“This woman,” I told Marco, “she was sleeping in the open, with her back to an old wall, half-standing. This way, she told me, I don’t have to always look behind me. I only look in front.”
“She told me that men take advantage of women sleeping outside, women who are alone. And of course I wanted to help her! I told her that if she experienced anything, or was at risk — of course she was! — there are services, support, health centers, organizations, whatever she needed, just in case.”
Marco was listening, intently. We hadn’t touched our appetizers.
“No! she told me, defiantly. We don’t have time for such things. And what will that do? Nothing. Because it will keep happening.”
“And I had no response to this. Because she was right, y’know? She was right!”
“And then she said: We just want to feel safe.”
“Do you feel safe? I finally asked her, after we had been sitting there in the dirt for a while.”
“No. She said. No.”
Marco knew my story well enough, that I had lived overseas for decades, in some of the world’s least safe countries. The spotlight was never on me, but rather about what I could do to deliver safety to women I thought needed it most.
I told him that I developed my own system of measurement, my own indicators, to determine women’s safety. “Look at the presence — or absence — of women in public space to get the pulse of the place. If women were out walking, or had set up informal markets, or were circulating comfortably — this was a good sign. If not — well, that’s an obvious problem that extends beyond women. Essentially, women are an early warning system for a society’s safety and stability.”
“So, look around your city,” I advised him, “especially at night. Are women there? Do they feel safe being there? Just about every woman I know has developed strategies to mitigate risk when walking alone — we move to different sides of the street, or wear headphones but have no sound, or keep our heads down, or bulldoze straight ahead, or share our location with a friend, or a bazillion other things we should not have to do. And we never, ever walk down dark alleys — not if we can help it!” I added with a small smile, trying to add a little light to what had become an incredibly dark dinner.
“I won’t ever unsee this, Lina,” Marco said, hardly able to get the words out. “I don’t know why I never saw it before…” he mumbled.
“Once we see it, we’ll never unsee it,” I said to him. “It’s always been there!”
“And that woman… in Haiti…?” Marco asked, reluctantly. He imagined it was not a particularly happy ending.
“I sat with her. I offered to help. I told her how to reach me. I did what I could…” I responded, somewhat half-heartedly.
“But most of all I thought of the question: Are you safe?! And I wondered why no one ever asked it of her — or of any of us. Because I know the answer. The answer is always no. Women and girls just do not feel safe. Safety is our right, but it is viewed as a luxury for those who don’t have it. And as long as the world is fundamentally unequal, women and girls will always feel unsafe — at home, in the streets, in schools, in workplaces, and especially in dark alleys!”
“Do you feel safe, Lina?” Marco asked me, voice lowered. A big man who suddenly seemed a little bit smaller, to me.
I did not know how to answer. No one had ever asked me that before. I mumbled that I didn’t know, and swiftly changed the subject.
Later that night, I replayed the scene in my mind — the dark alley, the difficult question.
Do you feel safe, Lina?
No, I don’t feel safe. As a woman, I am not safe.
And with this realization comes the resurgence of anger. Why is it that I have to carry the burden of my own safety, while men are free? This is what we should be asking women and girls everywhere, everyday: Are you safe? What will it take to make you feel safe? And we should go out and do those things.
For me, and for women everywhere, we’re at the entrance of that dark alley every single day, wondering if we will be safe.
The answer is always no.