Katy Guest: Jacqui Smith told the truth. Women feel threatened

Our columnist admires a Home Secretary who, like her, fears the streets
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The Independent Online

I must be failing in my job as a cynical hack, because I can't help liking Jacqui Smith. She eats kebabs at teatime. She wilfully wore bosoms in public. I bet she can remove beer bottle tops with her teeth. And what she said last week made pretty good sense to me.

Asked in an interview whether she'd be happy to walk alone at night in Hackney, she replied: "No, why would I do that?" OK, she shouldn't have continued: "I just don't think it's a thing that people do", because obviously it is, particularly people who live in Hackney. But fundamentally her reply was sane. Would anyone walk the streets of anywhere at night if they didn't have to? No. Why would they do that?

Opposition MPs lined up to point and laugh. The Lib Dems' Sarah Teather called Smith's softie comments "absolutely astonishing", but to be fair anyone would think twice if they came across Sarah Teather down a dark alley. David Davis called it "shameful that you can walk the streets of New York, Tokyo, Paris and Berlin safely at night, but not... London." I'd like to see David Davis wander New York at night, actually. Or the favelas of Rio. Or South Central LA. Even Labour's Diane Abbott put the boot in. "Comments like hers make women unnecessarily fearful," she complained.

It was not Jacqui Smith but others who made this a debate about women's safety. But since they have: it is not the comments of an off-message Home Secretary that make women fearful, but women's real experiences. Yes, we are significantly less likely than men to be attacked by strangers (a third as likely, according to the Office for National Statistics). But we are also nearly three times as fearful of this happening. This is partly thanks to the bad old media, which record every pretty blonde raped and ignore the muggings of young men; partly thanks to commentators such as Ms Abbott, who talk so naturally of women as victims; and partly down to the fact that some men like to scare the bejasus out of women walking home alone.

The area of London in which I live is not Kensington; but it isn't the Bronx. I understand self-defence and I'm sensible. But sometimes terrifying things happen in the dark. Most of them are largely thoughtless – like the man who pestered me all the way down a dark street, and then said, angrily, "Oh, don't you talk to black men then?" Well no, I don't talk to any men who follow me home at night, asking where I live. Or the one who told me off when I crossed the street away from him. Like the chicken, I was crossing the road only to get to the other side, not because I thought he would rape me, as he assumed.

But others do mean it. I was once cornered by a man who had beeped his horn at me. I gave him the finger; he got out of his white van and screamed in my face. A friend was sexually assaulted on a south London street. The first police officer on the scene, a woman, told her she shouldn't have been so stupid as to walk home alone.

As I march home most nights, eyes front, keys in fist, I am well aware of the statistics. But that doesn't mean I'm not scared. I don't blame Jacqui Smith for the men who think it's funny to block my path and have a go; in fact I think she was brave to admit her fears. And if I had a ministerial car, would I use it? Hell, yes. Why wouldn't I do that?

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