Park That Thought by Astrid Dorfman Dyrli | International Women’s Day Celebration

*Trigger warning: sexual assault*

It was late September, the last few of a series of beautiful autumn days before the rain set in until spring. It was a summer of endings in many respects, and yet many of the endings were long overdue. My mandatory education had ended in June, and with it ended my obligation to stay in the country I once called home. My relationship had ended in July, nearly three years to the day since it had begun. By September I was longing for new beginnings; a new country, university, a new person to take my fancy, perhaps. It was under these circumstances that I found myself in town one weekend after midnight, at a local bar called Robin Hood. I am certain I was not there alone, yet I remember no details of who I was there with. I was talking to a group of boys one year my senior, who were somewhere between acquaintances and friends, although this was usually the case where I lived. Of particular interest to me that night was Daniel*, although the reason for this escapes me. The likelihood, however, was that he had shown an interest in me.

And so, when the bar closed and there were talks of us all going back to Daniel’s, I was happy to join. Daniel had walked ahead with the others, and I was walking along with his friend, Mark. It was dark, sometime after 2am, and the streets were empty. This was nothing out of the ordinary: it was a small town, and indeed it was not unusual to be the only person on the street, especially at night. And yet I never felt unsafe, and in my view there was no reason to. We were a town of acquaintances; all familiar faces, vague in our knowledge of each other’s family histories. Mark’s brother went to my preschool. I remember him as Little Sam because there was an older and wiser Big Sam, although in my adult life I now cannot remember who Big Sam was. Mark’s mother worked at my primary school, his father worked at my sixth form. All these connections, and yet I would define him as an acquaintance. Such was the way in my town.

We lost sight of the others, and when I ask where they had gone, Mark confidently told me we were meeting them in the park. What was defined as a park in our town was more of a patch of greenery in our city centre, situated between the primary school and the community centre. It was large enough for children to run around if parents kept an eye on them, and in recent years more money had been dedicated to making the park a more attractive space to spend time. They had added some statues, some benches. A few years ago they tore down the age-old red pavilion where we used to sit before primary school started, and replaced it with a life-size chess board and a jungle gym. I used to think how lucky the primary school kids were nowadays, to get a brand new jungle gym instead of that faded old pavilion, red paint peeling off its side, unable to sustain the stormy weather that often swept through my town.

With no reason to distrust him, we walked there together. The others had not arrived yet, so we stood around for a while, making small-talk. He was drunk, he talked way too much, he was trying to be profound. I asked when Daniel and his friends were arriving, trying to sound aloof, and Mark said they had just texted and would be there shortly. While I was waiting, I swung from the bars of the jungle gym. I stood on the ground, reaching towards the bars overhead when Mark told me to stop for a second, so I did, and he pulled my top down and pressed me against the back of the frame. He grabbed my breasts and kissed me, I was crying but he told me it’s okay, he gets emotional sometimes, too. He finally let go of me and I pulled my top up, I made some hurried excuse and I quickly walked away, leaving him in the park, holding my breath until I got far enough away that he can no longer hear me, and I began sobbing violently on the side of the road.

Four years later university has ended, I have moved to yet another country, started a new job, I have been in a new relationship for nearly three years. I am watching season two of Sex Education, which is brilliant, and I watch it all in two days and discuss it with anyone who will listen. And yet, the next few mornings I wake up with a singular image in my mind that stays with me the rest of the day: the park after midnight, the jungle gym, Mark pushing me up against its side. I think about what could have caused these images to reoccur – whether I have done anything differently the last few days. Suddenly, it dawns on me: Aimee’s experience on the bus in Sex Education has thrown my head into a tailspin, although I did not even realise it at the time. And then, I become angry.

I am angry that four years later this incident has the ability to throw me into a depression that uproots my daily life. I am angry that Mark would probably not consider what he did to be sexual assault and would deny it fervently if confronted. I am angry that he has probably not given this incident a second thought since it happened, and yet I am confronted with it when watching a programme I enjoy. I am angry that my only proof is my words, that my friends are still his friends, that I still need to see him in social settings. I am angry that people would probably believe him over me. I am angry that in the grand scheme of things, the sentence “at least he only grabbed you against your will” seems legitimate. He could have done so much worse. I am angry about a lot of things, not just related to Mark, but about women’s struggle in society. And yet, if I admit to being angry, I will likely be dismissed as a ‘raging feminist’. Is my anger not justified? Why are we not angrier? We are not angrier because angry women are viewed as irrational, dramatic, dismissed for being on their period. We are not taken seriously when we are angry. I am angry about that, too.

When the incident with Mark happened I told only two people, Theo and Tom. They are still both very dear to me, but do not get along with one another. They are the complete antitheses of each other, which is perhaps why I sought them out. In hindsight I asked myself why I did not tell any of my female friends, but the answer is simple: every woman has this story, mine was just another one added to a long list. I did not need the sympathy of other women who have been in my situation, I needed my male friends to understand how hurt I was. Theo is a mutual friend of mine and Mark’s; he is emotional and compassionate, and often makes decisions based on his feelings. These characteristics were reflected in his reaction; when I called him right after the incident had happened he was livid, and was about to get in his car and drive to Mark’s house when I asked him not to. Theo was ready to confront mark, but I prevented him. I said that Mark was drunk, there was no use in talking to him. I deeply regret that decision. Theo understood then, as I do now, that the only hope of accountability was confrontation. Tom, who I called during my shift at work a few days later, is perhaps overly pragmatic and rational in his thinking. He was angry, too, and told me to go to the police immediately. But I couldn’t go to the police; there was no evidence, no CCTV. No one had seen us. I only had my words.

My words are not enough. I am from a country that prides itself on its free speech, yet no amount of free speech will make me equal. My country is known as one of the most equal in the world – and rightfully so – but ‘most equal’ does not mean equal. Laws stating equality do not automatically ensure equality; there needs to be a societal change in norms, attitudes and expectations towards women before I will count myself anywhere near equal. I am told to take caution when travelling alone, not because I am weaker or any less capable than my male counterparts, but because the world does not treat women the way they treat men. If I get married, I will be questioned for not taking my husband’s name. If he takes my name, he will undoubtedly be questioned more. I am yet to meet a woman without a story of sexual harassment or assault, and yet the reaction to this statement will likely for many be an assertion that men are sexually assaulted too. Girls wearing men’s clothes are cool, boys wearing women’s clothes are weak. The feminine is shunned and we are told to ‘man up’ in the face of adversity. We all know the facts: I am likely to earn less than my male counterparts, I am less likely to be in a leadership role. This world is designed for men; iPhone sizes based on the average male hand, crash-test dummies based on average male height and weight, voice recognition services that are 70% more likely to accurately recognise male speech, drugs that go through clinical trials with predominantly male subjects. We all know these facts, and yet they remain facts. This is not necessarily because there are a lack of laws or people championing women’s rights, although there is that too. It is because society, whether consciously or not, still inherently view women as the weaker sex. I am angry, most of all, that in the lottery of female life I am the lucky one. My country grants me equality by law, I am white, I am educated, I have free speech and social mobility. I am from a middle-class background, a concept which does not even exist where I am from. He only grabbed and kissed me against my will. I may well be one of the luckiest women on this planet, and yet I am not equal.

Would you not be angry, too?

*All names have been changed

Follow Astrid on Instagram @astriddyrli and find her on LinkedIn.

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