I always wear a lot of jewellery. Heavy hoops in my ears plus an assortment of oversized rings, including a massive pink one I never leave home without. I remember once being asked by someone why I had started wearing them, and I replied that I like them, they’re pretty, and all the cheap gold reminds me of being a teenager.
I don't confess the other reasons: that I like my earrings massive because it means they’re also big and sharp, and if someone grabs me on the street the earrings have the potential to be used weapons. I don't say that my rings make me feel safer because I like to “accidentally” drop my big pink one when a man behind me is too close for comfort; picking my ring up gives me the chance to bend down and let him go past, and reassures me that if he makes a quick grab and the police start looking for me, at least they'll know the last place I was standing. I never admit that the sound my two earrings and five huge rings might make if they fell to floor comforts me, and is a noise I feel I can rely on more than the sound of a too-scared-to-make-any-noise scream.
These ways of keeping me safe range from the sensible to the far-fetched, but in a lot of ways they’re all I have. Every woman I know has tricks like this – and the extent became clear when I asked women on Twitter about how they protect themselves. Some of us find movement safe, so we cross roads or walk in the middle of them when we see lone male figures in the distance. Some try disguise – earrings off, hoodies and caps on, hunched walks and a fake swagger, anything to look less vulnerable, less like public, less female. Some of us have our phones against our ears, the calls sometimes fake; some of us have 999 dialled with our fingers poised to call at a moment’s notice, some of us keep headphones in and phones out to look as busy as possible.
Every time I have carried my keys between my knuckles, I have also carried fear. Fear of men, and the things they might try and do to me, all because I smiled back, or ignored one, and everything in between
Some of us think more of the fight – that dreaded fight that haunts our nightmares and litters the shadows found along seemingly endless walks from bus stops and train stations to our front doors. And so we keep our nails long and sharp, we have pocket-sized spray deodorants in our back pockets because it's half as good as pepper spray, and we carry stuff. We carry lighters and sharp pencils and pens and lit cigarettes, and we carry our keys. Each one nestled between the knuckles of the hand we hope is strong enough to fight against the thing we don't like to name.
After years of wondering if I was the only woman who keeps her keys between her knuckles, my impromptu Twitter poll has proven that, on a small scale, I’m far from alone. In the wake of the awful online piece a few days ago about the ways men can force a woman wearing headphones to talk to them (tip: don't), I asked the women of the web if they, like me, keep their keys close to hand. Yes, they replied, we do. Eighty per cent of us, in fact – or at least 80 per cent of the 3,200 women who responded. The only shock I felt at those figures was surprise the percentage wasn’t higher.
This decision to keep our makeshift weapons close to hand in case of violence is often solidified as teenage girls, the first time a man shouts something from a car window or follows us home or comments on the way our uniform fits. Make no mistake: this fear revolves around the way men feel entitled to women in public space, with catcalling and street harassment feeding into this. Every time I have carried my keys between my knuckles, I have also carried fear. Fear of men, and the things they might try and do to me, all because I smiled back, or ignored one, and everything in between.
Of course, there are men out there who also keep their keys in their fists for protection. But I can’t help but feel that the fear a man carries is different. For women, this sexualised, violent fear doesn’t hang alongside us, but is part of us. It’s our skin and blood and bones and something very deep inside that screams every time I try to get home at night, a loud voice yelling “something bad might happen”.
If I’m honest, I’m not sure what advice to give to my male friends – I could suggest crossing the road when they see lone female figures quickening their pace, or maybe making sure to make lots of noise as they walk so as not to sneak up on someone accidentally. But perhaps the only proper advice is to listen. Listen to women when we say we feel unsafe. Leave us alone – even if you think we’re fit, even if we’re not doing anything. Tell your friends. Call out casual misogyny because all of it feeds into a culture where women’s bodies become battlegrounds for men to make their moves, and for God’s sake never, ever, bother a woman with her headphones in.