There is a busker who often stands outside my local shopping centre, doing something he calls singing. The noise is awful but I don't mind. I never really mind someone having a go. What I do mind is the way he stares at me, and other women I know, as we go past. It may be simply that we divert his eye, but it feels creepy. I will usually take a different, longer, route if I see him, or not go into the centre at all.
Today he stopped singing to watch me pass by, and I involuntarily shuddered. So despite many reservations, I went to the centre management desk to make a gentle complaint. I didn't want trouble for him, I just wanted to have him perhaps moved elsewhere so the way would be made easier for women.
The carefully groomed lady behind the desk was initially displeased to hear that there was a busker on the property. But when I explained my discomfort at his behaviour, she smirked. And of course I understood.
I am not a young woman. I am not attractive. This morning I'd merely dashed out to do a quick shop, and so hadn't applied makeup (not that it makes much difference). It was clear from this woman's attitude that she didn't think me deserving of a man's creepy stare, and that I was silly - or wretchedly delusional - for thinking I was.
What she perhaps didn't realise was that I already know this. I am fully aware the thoughts behind the creepy stare are probably much the same as the thoughts she was having, looking at me. That doesn't make it any less difficult to bear. It's still sexism if your overt gaze at a woman's appearance is negative rather than lewdly appreciative.
I felt so belittled, I didn't confront her on it. I just left, and worried all the way home that the busker would have his feelings hurt by being moved on.
Men can be appallingly horrible to women. It's an exhausting, endless, sometimes deadly, problem, and it's why I complained about the busker today. But the truth is also that women can be appallingly horrible to women. The part of me that wishes she'd studied anthropology can think of several reasons why women do this, but in the end what matters most is saying that it does happen. It is real. And it hurts. At its mildest, the social violence of women involves silly gossip or makes you feel like you can't ever again wear the pretty new dress you just bought. At its worst, it enables the violence of men against women. I'll never believe there is a sisterhood.
No, I've not had to call the police because I can't walk down a street at night to reach my home due to the scary-looking woman lurking in the shadows, watching me approach. But I've suffered the smirks, silences, cutting remarks, raised eyebrows, turned backs, advice, and general meanness of women all my life, and there's no one to call to rescue me from that.
* Not all men. And not all women.