One student’s experience with harassment, and the steps she takes to stay safe
I enter the metro car to find it practically deserted. Despite the empty seats, I decide to stand. I look around, but there isn’t much to see. A woman staring pensively out the window, a young guy shouldering the burden of a school bag and a man sitting with his legs spread apart. He is sitting behind me, so I’m able to observe his behaviour in the reflection of the glass. That familiar, feminine voice announces the name of the next metro station, and I notice the man shift in his seat.
Suddenly, I can feel his gaze on my back. I take a step towards the door, pretending that I’m getting off at the next station. The man jolts up out of his seat, like this has suddenly become his stop too. Of course, when the doors open and I do not exit the train, neither does he. Instead, he drops right back into his seat and waits.
A minute passes before we arrive at the next stop. Now, it really is my turn to get off. I squeeze through a sea of faces on the platform and join the others waiting for the green line. And I wonder about the whereabouts of the peculiar man from the metro car.
That’s when I spot him just a few feet away from me. I notice details about him: his long, grey coat, his sunglasses, his ghostly skin with red patches. I start to worry the man is following me, so I decide to walk away from the platform. He follows me. My instincts propel my feet into action. I dart to the orange line with steps as fast as my racing thoughts—what are my options, where is the exit, who can I call, am I exaggerating, what is he planning to do, what was he wearing?
That’s when I spot the man, stomping furiously back in the direction of the green line.
In a recent report, the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) received a rating of A+++, earning the title of best transit system among major Canadian regions, according to CBC News. Factors considered in the grading included the number of passenger trips per service hour, passenger trip intensity and operating cost. Unfortunately, safety was not taken into consideration. Perhaps all the flashing lights, slick screens and sophisticated sounds of the new Azur metro cars distracted these examiners from spotting the new danger of one endless train—potential predators are no longer cars away. They’re steps away, always.
At least the old, separate metro cars inherently minimized your chances of encountering a predator, or at least gave you the possibility of switching cars if you were uncomfortable. I admit the old cars need upgrading. And while improvements are being made, there are still too many issues to warrant top marks.
The Montreal transit system doesn’t need praise. It needs police. In fact, a more effective police presence is the only advantage I see to having one long car. Now, a single officer can monitor the safety of a whole train, rather than just one section. But until I actually see police roaming the new trains with vigor, I won’t feel any safer taking the metro.
When I finally got to class that day, after I was followed in the metro, I was so relieved I could have burst into tears. However, the city’s streets haven’t always been a sanctuary of safety for me either. After some window shopping between classes, I walked into the EV building to sit down and eat my lunch. My appetite was quickly spoiled, however, when a man plopped himself beside me and said he’d spotted me out on the street. “I followed you in here so that I could say hello,” he explained, waving his hand in the air innocently, as if that would shed years off his wrinkly face.
Recently, the Crime Scene Index evaluated the level of safety in 15 Canadian cities. Being followed in broad daylight is just one of many reasons why I’m not surprised Montreal came in 13th in that ranking. All too often, women disregard experiences like these as mere instances of discomfort. They console themselves with the fact that he walked away, or that nothing really “bad” happened. They convince themselves that they’re making it into something that it’s not, or that they’re just being dramatic.
They see men gallivanting through the streets alone at midnight, jamming with headphones on in the metro, wearing whatever clothes they please, and many women think they too can live with these same freedoms, without worry. I used to think that way too, until I realized this was an arrogant approach to take toward my own safety.
Women cannot live in constant paranoia because that is self-destructive and unhealthy. Yet, they cannot live with their head in the clouds either. Paranoia and incautious confidence are two extremes, and our solution is found in between. Do not become shy and reserved in an effort to avoid low-lifes and losers, but don’t live in denial that there are creepers lurking.
For me, being less arrogant about safety has prompted me to make very specific changes. I look up from my phone every once in awhile to observe those around me. I keep my music at a slightly lower volume than before, so that I’m more aware of my surroundings. I tie a sweater around my waist when I’m riding the metro in an effort to thwart at least a few strangers from unnecessarily lusting over my body. I carry a rape whistle.
Some of these tips might make sense to you, while others might not appeal to you in the slightest. The good news is that these are just a few amongst a plethora of options women have when it comes to taking a more proactive approach to their safety. At the end of the day, only you will know what works for you—what changes or sacrifices you are willing to make in the name of safety.
But options aside, I do urge you to choose proactivity over arrogance, because half the victory lies in acknowledging there is a battle to fight in the first place.
Graphics by Zeze Le Lin