Today is International Women’s Day, and the maddening reality remains that one billion women worldwide will be raped or beaten in their lifetimes.
This past year alone, we’ve heard about gang rapes in India, street harassment in Tahrir Square and sexual assaults on American college campuses. But violence against women and girls isn’t always so black and white. It can be gray, insidious, barely audible and yet deafening. Those stories are met with responses like, “Well, you weren’t raped” and “At least you weren’t hit or molested,” and they don’t make headlines.
My name is Aly Neel, and I’m one of the countless women worldwide who has experienced this kind of gray abuse.
I remember every detail of that day, when I was 22, including the grooves of the stupid chair I was crouching behind in our home in southern Louisiana. Counting the seconds creeping by like hours, I pulled my knees to my chest and focused on the faded green fabric inches from my nose. It was kind of like hide-and-seek, except I was an adult, and hiding from my dad.
I swear I could hear my heart throbbing against my rib cage. He must hear me. He must know I’m here, I silently panicked. But he never found me.
My dad never laid a hand on me, but there was lots of rum. Yelling. Broken glass.
A couple months back, 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 began with “spoiled” and “lazy.” And where take a shower and cook breakfast should have been were instead “bitch,” “whore,” “chicken shit,” “unsuccessful.”
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.
It was a list I wrote years ago of all the names dad called me. As I reread my furiously scribbled note, every word triggered another nightmare, another screaming match we didn’t want the neighbors to hear.
Rum, dented cars, beaten-in cupboards.
After an especially bad fight, I recall daisies forced into our hands and scripted apologies fed to us. “We were so much happier before you girls,” he’d say. I was 9. I recall begging my mom not to divorce dad. And she didn’t…at least for another decade.
But we didn’t talk about any of this outside the house. In fact, it took me nearly two decades to realize my relationship with my dad wasn’t normal.
And after I left home, “gray” abuse seemed to follow.
Take one night a couple of months ago. It wasn’t until the morning after what I thought had been a spontaneous night of swing dancing with a few guy friends that I learned what really happened – that I had been fed shots for more than two hours, and let’s just say more than dips and twirls happened on that dance floor.
At least nothing terrible happened, said the friend who poured four of my shots on the floor that night. But that’s not true. I was used, compromised, taken advantage of. I’ve thought about that night every day since.
Then there’s what happens every day when I walk out the door.
I’ve been catcalled, spit on, assaulted and called a prostitute. A couple weeks ago, I was strolling arm-in-arm with a friend, enjoying the slightly warmer evening, when a man grabbed my crotch. I chased but didn’t catch him. The worst part? Another guy, donning a light gray hoodie, patted me on the shoulder after witnessing the entire incident. “Don’t worry. I’m a police officer,” he said as he just stood there.
One case of street harassment is traumatic enough, but what really weighs on me is that, like verbal abuse, it never relents and the pain never fades completely. Daily harassment has worn me down so much that sometimes I can’t remember who I was before it.
It’s funny. People call me confident, optimistic and happy, and I am. But they don’t know. How can they?
I’m not alone, and that is why this story matters—because it was just one of the millions worldwide that remained untold until now. After the gang rapes in New Delhi and Punjab made international headlines, we began talking about rape and the culture that tolerates it both there and around the world.
But we also must talk about the “lesser” forms of violence against women and girls; they are all rooted in that same culture. Because if we don’t tell our stories, who will?
Aly Neel is a journalist based in Istanbul. Follower her on Twitter at @AlysonNeel.