Writing by Myra Alawadhi. Artwork by Paola Valentina.
The club is packed to the brim and quintessentially rowdy, but his voice rings loud and clear. You finally turn around - too quickly, much to his satisfaction - to find him scowling at you.
It’s still better than that malicious, hungry look on his face when he scanned your body, before
clumsily inserting himself between you and your friends in a poor attempt to dance against you -
your eyes then met his, and you just knew.
Your friends were suddenly nowhere to be seen. Don’t panic. You turned your back to him, but
he closed the distance, and felt him breathing heavily down on your neck. Alarm bells rang loud
in your head, blurring background noises for a long moment as you realised there was no space
for you to escape. Focus. You didn’t stop dancing - to slither out of the way, you had to make
enough space for yourself. And while you concentrated all your efforts on doing that, you
pretended not to notice him. He is not here, he is not here.
But he was. He gingerly locked his arms around your waist, and that was it. No. You tried to
muscle your way out of his grip, but couldn’t manage. He took your squirming as encouragement and tightened his grip. NO. You broke his arms apart, hard, without looking back at him. He gave a muffled groan of pain. Please go away. And that was when he said it.
Now, facing him, you look at him blankly. But this tension lasts just for two seconds, before
your friends find you, at last, and pull you towards refuge. Later, alone and curled up in your
bed, you argue with the voice. It plays the devil’s advocate, as it always does.
Why did you have to be so cold to him?
I didn’t want to dance with him, as simple as that. He just wouldn’t back off.
He wanted you. And it’s not as if he physically hurt you or-
Does that matter? He didn’t hurt me but could’ve.
Could’ve but didn’t.
Still, I didn’t feel comfortable with him touching me, and he was about to do something far
Oh, bullshit. He picked you. Be grateful.
But I didn’t want to-
You really are a bitch, you know that?
That’s not fair.
You made someone feel worthless. You said no. How could you not be?
Anger, hypocrisy, pride, greed, selfishness, envy, arrogance, irresponsibility, apathy, ingratitude,
disrespect, intolerance, impatience, shamelessness, dishonesty...
An instant, chilling shiver runs through you, and silence floods the car. That word is never okay
when uttered by a man. You deserve it though - and the shame which follows. Your hands
nervously wring themselves together, resembling the tightness with which he held your hand as
you crossed the road to get into the Uber. It was raining, and you were a street away from your
other friends, one of whom, being as irrational as she was, had decided to buy ice cream.
That left you and him alone, panting in the Uber after having raced to the car. He stared at you,
then, for an odd couple of seconds. “What?” you said. He smiled. “Can I?” he asked. You flashed him a confused smile. He moved closer to you, so that your knees touched. What is he doing? As if in response, he touched your face and leaned in. No. You flinched, and he asked, “Is this fine?” No. You remembered the voice’s words: be grateful. You nodded, almost too vigorously. In answer, a series of actions followed: he leaned in and touched his lips to yours, placed one hand on your chest and the other hand on your inner thigh, slightly parting your legs. No. Yes. You had to do this. You couldn’t bring yourself to reciprocate any of his actions, but you had to do it. You had said yes to him already, so you sat as still as possible.
Stop. You couldn’t do it - you softly told him to stop, but he continued to feel you up. Please. You told him again, louder this time. Please. He was persistent. 1...2...3...4...you never got to 5.
You pushed him away, hard. He scoffed, clearly taken aback. His expression contorted from
amusement to one of unfiltered anger as he spat out the insult.
The voice doesn’t speak to you today.
In the third grade, a boy asked you if he could hold your hand while walking to the playground.
You said no. He asked you again, more pleadingly this time, to which you said no, equally
firmly. He then stormed off and announced how rude you were. What followed was guilt, an
emotion you had never felt before; and the voice, your soon-to-be constant companion.
Since then, perceived vices have established their supremity in defining you. Letting men think
all kinds of wrong about you has always seemed less frightening than fighting their perceptions.
Because somewhere, you have this fear - what if it’s all true?
You’re all too familiar with the bitter aftertaste of saying no. Each time you try to keep yourself
safe from potential harm, the likeness of having committed a crime stays with you. And
victimising yourself does no good because, either way, those aspersions remain stuck to you.
So you think: am I a bad person?
But the mere fact that you question this label means you doubt it’s true. You’ve lived enough
years with yourself to know that’s not how you would primarily describe yourself.
You introspect further: then why do I feel like I am?
And you know the answer. This isn’t about how you feel about yourself, but only how he feels
about you. In those precarious moments, the call of maybe I should enters your head because you know he wants you, chose you, and will tell you off if you don’t graciously accept. And the fear of being labelled as something you know you aren’t is what gives the voice its power.
The overworked phrase “be yourself” falls short of presenting a solution. How do you even know
who you are when all you’ve done is listen to men who don on you the vices that you so readily
internalise? To them, protecting yourself is incriminating evidence of your inherent selfishness;
you’re rude, unfriendly, closed off, a bitch, a slut…
You give men the power because somewhere you feel that that’s how it’s supposed to be, how
it’s always been. He’s the one who initiates. He’s the one in control. He decides. He labels.
And you? You croak out a yes, but it’s the voice talking.
It doesn’t happen after one time, two times, or three times. One insult, two insults, or three. You
don’t know when it shows up, but suddenly it’s there: the desire to stop this. Your resolve to end
the vice-internalising cycle is a product of your self-awareness, which you had let, for too long,
be overshadowed by male perceptions.
Because the next time won’t just be another instance that you can dismiss as being usual. It’ll be a step closer to the death of your conscience that tells you to protect yourself and the victory of the voice that conversely forces you to put yourself at stake, just to steer clear of those
There will be no next time.
The feel of the word is odd. It’s something you’ve only ever used dismissively, never in the
context of reclaiming your will. The tone of its finality hangs in the air, almost palpable. You can
feel the voice bubbling up in a rage, ready to scream at you. But unlike the other times, you snub it out and don’t immediately scan for escape gateways.
But he smirks, then leans in to make himself heard over the loud music as he says, “Didn’t catch
you there.” You feel naked. The voice screams ABORT MISSION over and over again, and for a
moment, you’re convinced of the need to follow its command.
Ignorance is not bliss.
And with that comes anger. “I said no,” you say. “Didn’t catch that? I’ll say it again. No.” You
loudly enunciate each word, so he doesn’t have to lean in again to comprehend. Now, he only
looks at you blankly. You’d like to think he’s afraid, but it’s hard to tell because he looks down,
turns his back to you, and walks away.
Maybe this was a stroke of luck. Maybe, next time, just a simple no won’t save you. But you also
know that by then, you’ll get bolder. You’ll shrug off the unjustified shame that comes with
saying no. And you know that because the word alone trumps that feeling of worthlessness
stemming from your usual escapist, forgiving resort. This time, the voice didn’t overpower you.
He didn’t overpower you.
Now, you initiate. You control. You decide. You label.
So much for being a bitch.