“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them,” says Margaret Atwood.
Yes, quite the pithy phrase, right? Auspicious, sensational, the perfect soundbite for upper middle class “Gender Studies” majors to whisper solemnly in poetry readings.
I always thought that kind of thinking was removed from reality, melodramatic, and above all else, stupid. I had never subscribed to Atwood’s assertion, and never in my wildest dreams could have imagined that the moment I did would be on the notoriously safe streets of Reykjavík. But hey, life is unpredictable.
Last Wednesday, as I walked home from work around 2:30 AM, a man started aggressively following me in his car, screaming ferociously at me to come inside. The details are too long for this short column, but the encounter ended with me sprinting down Laugavegur as he accelerated faster and faster at my side. Though I eventually found two men who escorted me home, the experience frightened me deeply. This man had malicious intent. He wanted to harm me. I was in danger.
Yet, here I was, on Laugavegur, the busiest street in Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital, which had effectively turned into a ghost town in the wee hours of the morning. The streets were barren. The shops were closed. My options were horrifyingly limited. Get home? That’s far. 10/11 on Hverfisgata? Even farther. Hide? Scream? Fight?
Fight. This sent a shiver through my soul. It hit me quickly that were this man to attack me, there was little I could realistically do. He was bigger than me, and even at peak physical condition, could I beat him? Probably not. As a biological woman, my bodily defenses were laughably pitiful. If we were in a debate, I could laugh at him, but here on the street, I could just run. The deck was stacked against me.
Now, I know my experience was unusual. Iceland is a relatively safe country. But considering the similarity of my circumstance to that of Birna Bjarnadóttir’s—who was kidnapped and murdered while walking down Laugavegur in January of this year—I now worry about walking home. In other cities, there are 24-hour shops, nighttime patrols, panic buttons. Should we adopt these? What is the solution for women against the innate biological strength of men?
Unfortunately, as my mother told me the next day, every woman has this horrifying realisation one day. It’s the tragic reality of being the weaker sex, but I should be happy I came out of my experience unscathed. Others are not so lucky.