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Is It Our Fault?

As a woman, it is inevitable that you will be harassed. It is difficult to know how to react in these moments. Embarrassment and humiliation can be more hurtful than anything else.
Netherlands, Western Europe

Story by Nika. Edited by Sterre van Dord
Published on June 18, 2021. Reading time: 4 minutes

This story is also available in ar cn es kr

Content Warning: This story contains mentions of sexual harassment and assault that can be upsetting for some readers.

I don’t call myself a feminist. In fact, I am cautious towards all -isms. I believe that sexism goes both ways. It can be difficult to judge whether a remark should be taken as a compliment or as a sexist comment. As someone who seeks better understanding of and between people, I think we all need tolerance before we judge other people’s words, behaviour and gaze. Nevertheless, there are instances when people’s behaviour is simply intolerable—small unpleasant memories.  I try not to think of them, because every time I do I wish I could bury my head in the sand. Why? Because they happened in public. People could see what was going on, but nobody did anything. I was a timid girl, not one to shout or stand up and walk away. When those people looked at me, it seemed like I was at fault as I did nothing to defend myself.

I will recount two incidents. Both happened when I was a student in the Netherlands. The first one took place at night. I was walking home with a female friend from a party wearing a short skirt. As we were walking on a quiet road, I noticed a shadow next to me. When I looked to my side, I saw a guy with a dark hoodie, who smelled strongly of weed. He had a malign expression. Before I knew it, he lifted my skirt and grabbed me. I was shocked and I froze. But my friend, who is much taller than me, was very cool-headed and shouted loudly. Luckily, the guy didn’t expect that and ran away. We hurried home and arrived safely. This incident only left me shocked for one night, because it ended well. Alone, I don’t think I would have had the courage to defend myself and I did not go further in imagining what might have happened.

The second incident is something I only recall with much reluctance. I was sitting on the tram going home from a day at the university campus. The train was packed. My seat faced the corridor. As I was sitting, a guy planted himself right in front of me. His height was such that if I looked up, I faced his crotch. Suddenly, he began making suspicious movements. At first, I couldn’t believe it. I tried to see from the corners of my eyes if my suspicions were correct. All I could see were the terrified looks of other passengers. I knew what he was doing. He was trying to masturbate in front of my face. I froze, again. The seconds that it took until the next stop felt like hours. I stood up, crouched like a criminal and slid out into the street. That was me then. This stupid timid girl!

When something like that happens to you, it is often difficult to know how to react. I sincerely wished the people around me had done something—like my friend did that night. Embarrassment and humiliation can be more hurtful than anything else and they stick in my memory. Silence and ignorance allow such incidents to continue to happen.

As a final word, I would like to thank my brave friend for helping me that night. I hope bystanders to sexual harassment can become more like my friend and will stand up and shout.

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This story is published under a pseudonym due to the sensitive content shared. The fact that she cannot share her name shows how difficult and embarrassing harassment can be. In reading the story, you may reflect on Nika’s call to stand up to harassment and make public spaces safe for everyone.

Topic: Gender

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