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Reclaim the streets


Dr Shaba Nabi


I live in hope that the outrage at the abduction and killing of Sarah Everard does not get buried with her. Every woman, regardless of age, can identify a time when they were a victim of casual sexual assault.

My own coming of age was at 14, while hanging out at the bottom of the school fields, which backed on to a railway track. His image is eternalised in my memory such that I would be able to pick him out in an identity parade, even today. Early 40s, brown suit, moustache, and an extremely large penis he liked to wave around at schoolgirls. Of course, we laughed it off as we were way too mature to be upset, but told the headmistress of the girls-only school to ensure no ‘younger’ kids were traumatised by this. That was the last I heard of it and the lack of police presence or interview was a subliminal message that this was my fate.

Life continued with smatterings of everyday harassment and assault. Men shouting out of car windows, wolf whistles while heavily pregnant, and being groped in crowded places. All met with resigned acceptance, rather than anger or distress.

A couple of years ago, an incident occurred that I could not shrug off. Looking back, I think it’s because it invaded my identity as a doctor, as it took place at the doorstep of my workplace. I had made my way back to the practice after a CCG meeting, taking my usual walking route of cutting through an underpass. My initial thought when my right buttock was grabbed really hard was that it was my husband. It took a few seconds after turning around to process what had happened, and I was still looking for my husband. Instead, I saw a gangly man who looked young enough to be my son. Once my brain had registered a stranger’s face, the adrenaline kicked in and I was shouting and swearing, demanding to know who he was and what right he had to be doing this to me. He clearly wasn’t expecting this and started running but I followed. I had no idea what I was going to do if I caught up with him.

I never got there. The adrenaline was soon replaced by all the emotions familiar to women. Guilt: why was I wearing such tight trousers? Regret: why didn’t I take the longer route? Violated: will I ever be able to wear these trousers again? Anger: why has this happened to me now? And fear. I subsequently bought a rape alarm for all the girls in the family.

I went through the motions of reporting it to the police but knew it was futile as there were no CCTV cameras in the area. I nodded dutifully at the only advice they could offer – keep your phone in your pocket, don’t enter the underpass alone and avoid it in the dark. I was left with the familiar quiet resignation, but also a sickening fear of meeting my perpetrator as a patient, which was so disabling it resulted in my taking the next day off work.

All women know serious sexual assaults and even murder don’t arise from nowhere. They are the climax of a lifetime of stereotypes, innuendoes and casual sexism, with an abundance of bystanders. Sarah’s death offers us the chance to tackle this issue once and for all. We must all ensure she did not die in vain.

Dr Shaba Nabi is a GP trainer in Bristol. Read more of Dr Nabi’s blogs online at pulsetoday.co.uk/nabi

This piece originally appeared in the April print issue of Pulse