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“What should I wear to work today?”
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“What should I wear to work today?”

Commonwealth Correspondent Samantha Khan, 24, writes about the weight of fear she continually carries as a woman living in Trincity, Trinidad.

This morning, I’ve decided to forgo towel-drying my skin after I shower. I let the water evaporate as I pull outfit after outfit out of my closet. I narrow my many options down to three choices, which I lay out on my bed: a knee-length teal dress, a slightly shorter black dress or an orange skirt.

As I start to reach for the skirt, a tendril of anxiety coiled in my stomach shakes itself free and climbs into my throat. I sigh heavily and tiptoe to drag a pair of plain black pants from the closet instead.

It’s no secret that I’m small. I’m about 4’9”. I say 4’9” because my driver’s license says 4’8” and my doctor says 4’10”. All things considered, I’m almost sure I didn’t shrink two inches before getting my license, so I’ve decided to settle for the median.

It doesn’t matter anyway. It is only necessary for a person’s height to be accurate down to the exact inch in situations of criminal activity or death under suspicious circumstances, neither of which seems to mean much in Trinidad and Tobago these days.

Land of the hummingbird, tiny and glittering. Land of Carnival, vibrant and spirited. Land of beaches and calypso and all things musical and beautiful and sweet.

Land in which I am afraid to live without bars on my windows. In which I am afraid to walk to the City Gate to get a bus in broad daylight after work. Afraid to take that bus alone. Afraid to take a taxi. Afraid to walk past a group of men. Just downright afraid.

I often wonder if I would be this scared if I were taller. If I were bigger. If I never wore skirts or dresses. If I made myself as unattractive as possible – shaved my head, scratched my face, wore a canvas bag. But then I worry about whether the bag would be too revealing, whether it would imply a lack of underwear and draw unwanted attention. I like high heels (I’m not even five feet tall, are you surprised?) but I’ve made the decision to only wear flat shoes to work. I stifle my desire to wear my favourite teal dress or my orange skirt or any jewellery that is not obviously false. I stifle myself.

It should not make me this anxious when, as a university student living abroad, I never once flinched to travel home alone on night buses in the wee hours of the morning or to walk to my destinations alone before the sun had properly risen. I should not feel my chest constrict and my heart palpitate when I would easily wear a dress with as high of a heel as I could manage in London without fear.

Every morning when I glance at that orange skirt and decide, instead, to wear my black pants (not too tight, of course), I lose a part of myself. One day, I probably won’t even remember a time when I liked to wear dresses. I won’t remember a time when I wasn’t afraid. When I knew unequivocally that there was something wrong with being told that my shorts are too inviting, that my dress is too distracting, that my red nails are too enticing.

Already, that icy voice is whispering its poison into my system: ‘You know, talking so much about shorts and skirts and red nails, you’re discrediting yourself, making yourself seem like a whor--…’

No.

For now, I still know that self-expression and fashion, once appropriate for the occasion, are not an invitation for unwanted attention or the fear that follows it.

I’ve heard many people, male and female alike, assert that feminism is not necessary. They say that if women dressed in a manner appropriate for the setting (not too conservative or you’re frumpy, not too sexy or you’re a slut) there would not be a problem. Please, tell that to the two uniformed schoolgirls raped on separate occasions, in separate schools last February[1].

I have heard people say that women who react negatively to catcalls can’t take a compliment. But what people don’t seem to understand is that there is a difference between “Hey baby sexy tits” and “Hey, you look beautiful”. And that difference is a combination of entitlement and objectification.

Let me break it down as I rifle through my array of blouses for the seventh time: With “hey baby”, the speaker presumes a sense of intimacy and over-familiarity with the other party. “Sexy tits” makes the statement overtly sexual. Thus, the subject of the statement is being reduced to their body parts by the speaker. They are being dehumanised. This introduces an uncomfortable power dynamic in which the speaker both dehumanises the subject and tries to assert a false sense of social or sexual intimacy with the subject.

If you indicate that you do not see me as a complete human being, then you indicate that you do not respect my rights as a human being; in this case, the right to personal security. I have a right to my own body and you have a right to yours.

You do not have a right to my body.

I’m sure you can see why this would make a person distressed or outright afraid. It escalates to the gut-churning, blood thumping fear that I experience when I have to travel home alone in a country where neither the justice system nor the society adequately punishes this misplaced sense of entitlement.

Society has failed us when a person’s sense of self-importance is so strong that they see no problem with raping a classmate in full daylight during school hours[2]. It has failed us when a stranger abducts a young girl on her way to school and leaves her dead in a field[3]. It has failed us when a young woman is murdered after running some errands after work[4].

The justice system has failed us when the perpetrators are not imprisoned and their violation of the law, their violation of humanity, goes unpunished.

Both faulty systems have combined to produce a casual disregard for basic human rights. We live in an age in which women are forced to arm themselves with the constant vigilance and extra caution that only fear can provide, or wear an armour of resignation. We live in an age where, too often, the victim is the one punished with a lifetime of trauma and guilt, while the perpetrator is sometimes not even identified.

We are not, collectively, the human race if some of us are deemed too subhuman for the freedom to occupy our own bodies in peace, if some of us are still subject to the control and entitlement of others. This is not male versus female. It is not a battle for the upper hand. This is about preventing the denial of human rights, making it an anomaly when those rights are threatened, and providing swift justice when those rights are breached.

I glance at the clock. I have five more minutes to make a decision before I start running grievously late. For a moment I consider wearing the skirt but, as it is, I am four feet and some inches tall and I am not rich or important enough to expect justice if I am assaulted. I do not make myself as invisible and silent as possible.

And even then, I know that it doesn’t matter. Fuelled by the reality of the ingrained sexism and dismally lax justice system, by the confidence with which the Prime Minister of my country said that women should ‘pick their men wisely’[5] in response to a fatal domestic dispute, my anxiety creeps up to my ear and whispers that this malignant sexism is being nourished. It is being validated. The anxiety sinks its claws into my chest. It is only a matter of time, it says.

I do not speak of my fear. I worry that I will be ridiculed by women who feel safer than I do. Maybe they do not travel alone. Maybe they have taken self-defence classes. That familiar twinge resurfaces. Maybe they are bigger than I am. Maybe I am a coward for wishing to live in a society where this fear would not exist rather than steeling myself to it.

Today, once again, I drag on the black pants and an oversized white shirt. I pull my hair into a ponytail and wipe off my lipstick.

I am still afraid to walk alone.

photo credit: Wolfram Burner via photopin

[1] Dowlat, Rhondor. “Two Students Raped In A Week”. The Trinidad Guardian Newspaper. 2016. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.

[2] Williams, Elizabeth. “4 Primary School Boys Charged With Rape”. The Trinidad Express Newspaper. 2015. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.

[3] Dowrich-Phillips, Laura. “Murdered Schoolgirl Longed To Lift Family Out Of Poverty”. Loop News Trinidad and Tobago. 2017. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.

[4] Gonzales, Gyasi and Carolyn Kissoon. “Shannon Found: She Was Murdered”. The Trinidad Express Newspaper. 2016. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.

[5] Doodnath, Alina. “PM Criticised For ‘Victim Blaming'”. Loop News Trinidad and Tobago. 2017. Web. 9 Feb. 2017.

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About me:

Hello! I’m a student from Trincity, Trinidad, and I love to write, read and sometimes draw. I would live in the cinema if I had the choice. I enjoy learning about as many different cultures as I possibly can.

My dream is to become a novelist and through that, to challenge the stereotypes and constraints of society, as well as to provide thought-provoking material to shed new light on life itself. I believe that if we all shine a little light into the world, it will inevitably become a brighter place.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?

To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/

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