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“This is the first time I’m sharing these stories”

In Stories, street harassment | on 10.23.12 | by | Comments ( 0 )

Aly Neel is an American journalist and women’s rights activist based in Istanbul, Turkey. She regularly writes about street harassment and gender-based discrimination and violence and the social movements fighting to end them. You can find her on Twitter. This is a monologue she wrote and performed this weekend.

It’s New Orleans, and I’m hiding behind a chair. Holding my breath. Counting the seconds, minutes, hours that seem to creep by. It’s kind of like hide and seek, except I’m 22 years old and I’m hiding from my dad.

I swear I can my heart throbbing against my rib cage. He must hear me. He must know I’m here.

I remember every detail of that stupid chair. OK, it was a beautiful chair. Victorian, in fact. Mom really likes antiques. My hands are shaking, so I rub my palms along the green fuzzy but now kind of hard with age fabric. Dark wood. Smells a little like mothballs.

I remember laughing at myself for hiding behind a fucking chair. And then hating myself for it. I remember crying, silently though. And then really hating myself.

My dad never laid a hand on me. I’ll tell you a secret, though. Sometimes I kind of wish he had. Just once, maybe. It’d sure make the abuse seem more real. My feelings more legitimate somehow. More black and white.

No, there was just lots of rum.

Screaming. Rum. Cursing. Broken glass. More rum.

The other day I found a list on a crumpled up napkin. I love lists. But this one was different. Instead of wake up and do yoga, it started with “spoiled” and “lazy.” And where take a shower and cook breakfast should have been were instead “bitch,” “whore,” “slut,” “chicken shit,” “unsuccessful.” It was a list I wrote of all the things dad said to us growing up. So I wouldn’t forget. It worked.  Every word triggers another nightmare, another screaming match we didn’t want the neighbors to hear.

Rum, yelling, Rum, dented cars, beaten-in cupboards.

The last two bullet points kill…”I wish you’d never been born,” he had said to my youngest sister with for once sober conviction and then one word, “unlovable,” which he told me after a really painful break-up.

After an especially bad fight – we call it Mississippi because my dad nearly killed us in a car crash on the border — I remember sickly sweet daisies forced in our hands and apologies fed to us. “We were so much happier before you girls,” he’d say if we hesitated. I was 9. I remember, at the age of 12, begging, tears running down my face, mom not to divorce dad. And she didn’t…at least for another decade.

But we didn’t talk about it outside the house. No, we were the perfect little family. Goes to church together, walks in the park together and then nearly kills one another behind closed doors.

I’ll never forget the day – it was exactly three months ago — that I realized no matter how much time passes, the scars from my dad’s abuse will remain with me. It’s been years since he moved out, and I still feel like I’m hiding behind a chair wishing he would just leave.

It took me nearly two decades to realize my relationship with my dad wasn’t normal. It wasn’t normal, and it was wrong.

I’ve been getting really drunk lately. Where each night I drink ends with me feeling impossibly, epically sick but somehow sicker than the time before.

The other night I went out with my friend Peter and his two friends passing through. I wasn’t even supposed to go out that night. But it’s just drinks, right? What started out as wine at the apartment turned into raki at the pub. And then someone ordered a round of tequila. I suck at tequila. I mean, I don’t know anyone who’s awesome at tequila, but I really suck. Somehow we ended up a reggae bar.

More shots. I lost count. The bar was completely empty except for two French girls in the corner. But we stayed. Parts of the night are fuzzy, but I remember never leaving the dance floor. Swing. Dip. Twirl. Shots…and then suddenly there was arguing. Peter took me home.

I learned what actually happened the next, head-pulsing morning. What I thought had been a relatively tame night of us all getting stupidly smashed and swing dancing at a reggae bar on a Tuesday night had actually been a bit more planned. For the last couple hours, I learned I was the only one taking shots. I was so plastered I had no clue. Oh and both of Peter’s friends made out with me on the empty dance floor. I honestly don’t remember a damn thing. Peter said he poured out at least four shots and took me home when it was “getting out of hand.”

At least nothing bad happened, he said, sounding relieved.

But it doesn’t feel like nothing had happened. Maybe I wasn’t assaulted, but I still feel used. And I’ve thought about it every day since.

But hey, you’re no victim if you’re drunk off your ass and making out with strangers, right? That’s what another friend told me.

Then there’s what happens every day when I walk out the door.

I could tell you another story about street harassment, but there’s no point. And which one would I choose? There’s hundreds. I’ve been leered at, growled at, spit on, stalked, called a prostitute. A couple weeks ago I was assaulted by a group of teenaged boys 20 feet from my front door.

Yeah, one incident of street harassment is traumatic enough but what really wears on you and whittles you away is that, like verbal or physical abuse, it never relents. It happens every day, everywhere. And, if you’re not careful, it can grinds on you so hard that at some point you can’t remember who you were before it.

It’s funny. People say I’m confident. Optimistic. Happy. And I am. But they don’t know.

I’m Aly, and I’m a victim of violence. I was never hit with punches. But I was hit with language every day at home, a word that has always been synonymous with fear, dread and rum. I was never raped but I was taken advantage of. On the dance floor with “friends” and then on the street everyday with complete strangers.

And the only thing worse than being harassed or abused is being re-harassed or re-abused. Every time people ask me what I was wearing when I am harassed or when friends told me, “He’s your dad after all,” when I confided in them or when a friend joked about the night at the reggae bar, I feel like it is happening all over again. And I just want to hide behind the stupid Victorian chair.

This is the first time I’m sharing these stories, and I don’t know any of you. For me that’s a big deal.

But I’m not alone. That’s the point. That’s why this matters. Because violence against girls and women isn’t always so black and white. It can be grey, insidious, barely audible and yet mind-numbingly deafening. That’s why, as incredibly heart-wrenching as it is, we have to talk about it and condemn it all – the harassment, abuse, violence – for what it is – wrong.

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