There are very few things I dislike about being a woman. In fact, I don’t really have a problem with getting my period – which we here at the Wonders of Womanhood call a monthly visit of “Aunt Flo” – even though she comes with her over-bearing buddies ‘PMS’, ‘Cramps’ and more.
Jokes aside, one part about being a woman that I dislike is our vulnerability – our susceptibility to outward harm. That is, being a woman comes with implicit vulnerability – and if you have ever been afraid to walk alone at night, you will know what I mean.
95% of the time, I am not afraid – of walking alone, or being attacked. I am strong. I can put up a good fight. And, I’m well-versed in crushing a guy through his weak spots. But once in a while, something happens that gnaws on the secret fear I have of being a woman. Most recently, it is the Col. Russell Williams case.
*Warning: This post contains a few details of the Williams trial and case that may be considered graphic. If you are uncomfortable with reading some details, please, do not click “Read More”.
If you’ve been following the Toronto Star, or any other news source, the Russell Williams case is not new to you. Russell Williams is a Canadian man who served in the military for 23 years, described as an elite pilot and a “shining bright star of the military”, flying the Queen of England and her husband as well as other prestigious passengers to/across Canada. He rose in the ranks of the military for his “model military work”.
Col. Russell Williams is also a serial rapist and murderer. He has been charged and pleaded guilty to 82 counts of breaking and entry, two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of forcible confinement, and sexual assault. As of Thursday Oct 21st, he is serving a life sentence in Kingston Penitentiary – Canada’s maximum-security prison.
For many people, Col. Williams’ story is one of disgust and horror, but that is it. It is just one of the many news cases, and life will move on from there. Intellectually and clinically, I may be able to take that perspective. But as a woman – as an individual who had something in common with those who died mercilessly at the hands of Williams – I cannot merely pass of this case as another story. It is the Williams and the Bernardos (serial rapist and murder in Scarborough) of the world who make woman afraid to walk alone.
Part of my personality is this insatiable need to educate myself – a trait that is burdening when horrifying cases such as these pique my interest. When I sit today to write this post, I have read about every single one of the 82 counts of breaking and entering Williams has committed, and what he did in those houses, and how he got in. I have read about the two women who died, each of whom fought valiantly and bravely for their lives, in what I can only imagine to be nightmare situation. I have read about the things he did to them, and what he said to them, and how he killed them.
I am scared. And although it is easy to distance oneself from this case, there are unnerving aspects besides the horrific deaths that will pervade the hearts of all women.
Williams said that he would choose to prey on women who lived alone. He would watch them through their windows, and break into their houses – more than once – and then wait for them to be sleeping before he would attack him, smashing their heads with a flashlight. As a young woman who has lived alone, Williams’ actions imply an unshakable threat: that a woman living alone is vulnerable. The fact that he didn’t know these women (although one did work under him in the army), that he preyed on them solely because of their living situation (and in many cases, didn’t go after someone because he realized they had a companion) is unnerving to all women who live alone.
It is people like Williams who make me afraid to go into my basement alone, the way one of his victims did, and suddenly discovered him there hiding. It is people like Williams who make me afraid to live alone. It is people like Bernardo who make me afraid to walk at night, alone. It is people like these who make women a target.
Suddenly, I am afraid all the time. I am afraid to be recognized as a woman when walking alone at night, often putting up my hood and changing my walk so I don’t become an easy target. I am afraid to come home too late, or to live alone because it makes me vulnerable to others. I am afraid when I get off the bus at night-time, and someone else (a man) gets off the bus too that I could be in danger, even though he may be a perfectly respectable individual, with no intention of harming anyone.
And from this fear, comes shame. I am ashamed of being afraid – of implicitly judging all men based on Williams and Bernado and Pickton. I am ashamed that I want someone to give me a ride from the bus stop at night instead of walking the five-minute walk. I am ashamed that I want my boyfriend to call me every night while I am walking, so I feel that safe because someone is on the other line to make sure I am okay – and I am ashamed at how angry I get when he doesn’t call, because my anger lashes out to cover my fear which I am too embarrassed to admit. I am ashamed that every night I must hide who I am and look more like a man (hood up, swagger) so that I can walk home safely. I am ashamed that every time a car passes me at night, I become afraid, that when I hear footsteps, I start to walk quicker, that I grip my phone tightly and my heart beats faster until I have turned the key in my lock and gotten inside safely. I am ashamed that the same young woman who was always confident she could beat anyone up who hurt her, is suddenly paralyzed with fear.
I know what it is like to be hurt – and even though my hurt is nothing to the extent to what these women have went through, I do know the hurt – and the lingering feelings, and the fear of men. It haunts my subconscious and it paralyzes me when cases such as Col. Williams’ comes to light. It is unfair – it is unfair that I must be afraid all the time because I am a woman: I don’t live in a bad neighbourhood, I don’t stay out too late, I don’t talk to strangers – but I am still a target like every other woman. And just when I think “oh, that will never happen to me”, I read about the same response one of Col. William’s victims had before she was brutally raped and killed. I, like every other woman, deserve better: to not be afraid, and to not be ashamed.
I wish I could tell you not to be afraid – because this post is not about making women scared. But it is also about the harsh reality that women are a target – and that no matter how strong or how brave you are, there is still safety in others. To walk alone and call a friend means you are not really alone. To live alone but know your neighbours, or keep in touch with your family means you are not really alone. To sleep alone but to turn on your alarm system at night means you are not really alone.
In short, there can be safety in others – in other people, in other protection systems, in other voices, in protection. It is safety, not just bravery, that will keep you alive.