I was in the queue in the supermarket, with my 16-month-old in her buggy. In front of me stood a man in his late fifties who was evidently becoming increasingly impatient waiting in the queue. He was huffing and puffing and cursing under his breath, holding a single pot plant and one or two other items. I grew slightly wary of him as he seemed to be becoming increasingly angry. Once he got to the self-service checkout he started shouting at the young woman who was supervising the area that the machine he was on wasn’t working. She indicated another machine and he moved to the machine beside me.
Instantly I was on guard, I stopped what I was doing, I stood between him and my daughter and I stayed watching him. I could see by his manner and body language that he had lost control of himself and I wasn’t sure what he was capable of doing. I wanted him to see that I was watching him. Sometimes that can be enough to make someone check themselves. Not in this case. Again he shouted that the machine he was on wasn’t working. I looked around for a security guard. No security guard around. He barked aggressively across the area at the young woman at the checkout who was dealing with someone else, ‘IT’S NOT WORKING’. There were loads of people around and everyone was watching him. He marched over the young woman, pointing into her face. ‘YOU!’ Pointing back to the machine, ‘DO IT!’
I watched in disgust. I prayed that she would stay where she was. Not move. Not respond to this blatant abuse. I wanted so badly to shout this man down. Call him out for his disgraceful behaviour. Say ‘how dare you speak to her like that, get away from her, get out of here’. But I didn’t. I stayed glued to the spot. She took a deep breath and walked over to the machine. She looked scared, embarrassed, unsure of what to do. She reluctantly scanned through his items and he huffed and puffed off cursing and swearing as he went.
She left crying.
In that moment, I was silenced because I have a baby to protect. I did not know what that man was capable of. His behaviour, body language, words and actions all said that he had completely lost control of himself. He was bigger and stronger than me. I didn’t know whether he could have hurt my baby. He could have hurt me and I am responsible for her, I just cannot take a risk like that.
She was silent because she was young and at work. She probably felt that she had to behave in a certain way. She was surrounded by customers. She was smaller, younger, weaker and in nearly every way possible, less powerful than him.
If I had been by myself I would have said something. I was more powerful than her at that moment. I was older, wiser, I have encountered situations like that before, I wasn’t in my place of work the way she was. I was so angry. Angry that there are men who think that it’s OK to abuse women. Angry to see more powerful people abusing less powerful people. I was angry that I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t say anything. I was angry at all the people around me that did nothing.
I’ve been that woman. I’ve been the girl crying at work, after getting abuse from bigger, older, stronger, more powerful men. I don’t know a single woman who doesn’t have a story like that and I was angry on behalf of all those women. Don’t even get me started on the managers who come along with a bit of an eye-roll and a ‘there-there-poor-little-girl-can’t-quite-cope-with-the-job-type-response’. But that’s a whole other blog post.
So if this incident taught me anything it’s this. Women’s voices are silenced because they are more vulnerable. Whether it’s being smaller, weaker, lower status or busy protecting babies. We can’t always speak up for ourselves. So we need allies, allies to speak out when we can’t. Allies to speak on our behalf when we are silenced. So men, please, if you see a woman being abused, speak up. Use your privilege! And if you are a woman who can speak out, speak out! We need men to speak up for women and we need powerful people to speak up for the less powerful.