Amusing Anecdote Or Feminist Problem

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I wasn’t going to blog about this. I was just going to let it slide, leave it as an amusing anecdote and one of my more-liked facebook statuses. But the more I’ve thought about the encounter I experienced a couple of days ago, the more it’s got me contemplating some serious feminist issues.It may be because I’ve just watched the brilliant documentary Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes but I’m feeling compelled to share my story with you. Here’s what happened:It was nearly 8pm and I was at the market hoping to pick up something delicious for my dinner. I stopped by the African stall and was contemplating getting a portion of their tasty curry while talking to the man serving me. This is a slightly condensed version of our conversation (which was all in French, so he already had the upper hand.)

Man in Blue and Brown Plaid Dress Shirt Touching His Hair

Me:

“Sorry but I think 10€ is a bit too expensive for me.” [Why did I feel the need to apologise for that?]

Him:

“I could do you a deal. How much do you want to pay?”

Me:

“Five euros?”

Him:

“I’ll do that for you, as a new customer.”

Me:

“Thanks, that’s very kind.”

Him:

“So, what’s your name?”

Me:

“Rachel.”

Him:

[Tells me his name.] “Where are you from?”

Me:

[Quite taken aback at this question.] “Um… Well, no actually. I only have an English one at home.” [A lie.]

Him:

“Are you married?”

Me: 

[I was quite shocked at this.] “No.”

Him:

“Are you engaged?”

Me:

“No. But I have a boyfriend at home.” [A lie.]

Him:

“Is he English or French?”

Afterwards, I felt very shaky, and it wasn’t till I’d walked away that I realised how uncomfortable I’d felt. I deliberately made sure not to walk back past his stall, and the ridiculous thing is that I’m now nervous to go back to the market for fear of seeing him again.At first, it had seemed like an amusing incident. You know, the sort of thing you’d come away from, roll your eyes and think ‘Geez, some men don’t know how to take a hint’, while chuckling to yourself. In fact, after putting the story on facebook I got 50 likes and lots of comments, the majority of which were people expressing their amusement.And it kind of is funny. Why didn’t the man get the hint that I wasn’t interested? Ha ha ha. Why did he ask for my phone number again? Ha ha ha.Except now let’s think about it a bit more.This is not the first time something like that has happened to me, and I’m certainly not the first girl it’s happened to. Is it sexism? Does it ever happen the other way round? It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?

I only got one facebook comment that seemed to read the incident in a serious way – one female friend suggested I post the story on Everyday Sexism, which I duly did. We can debate what sexism is forever, but this site hasn’t half brought the debate to the fore. And it’s a great thing too.However, I think the main thing to take away from this incident is not the way the man acted, but the way I responded. The day after I posted my facebook status, another friend sent me a link to this blog: Stop Saying “I have a boyfriend” in which the author says women need to stop saying they have boyfriends to fend off unwanted male attention. And I’ll admit, it’s a line I’ve used multiple times.The author says if that’s the only line we can use to make men get the hint and back off, then we’re essentially saying men “respect another male-bodied person more than they respect your rejection/lack of interest.”I think the article raises a very good point. The thing is, it’s easier said than done. And in my case, pretending to have a boyfriend didn’t make a difference to the man anyway.

But it made me ask myself, ‘Why didn’t I feel like I could just say “I’m not interested”‘?

In reality, it’s not that easy to say that to someone. I wanted to be polite. I hoped that by saying I had a boyfriend the man would stop pushing me and I’d be saved from outright rejecting his advances and making the situation awkward (a very British problem, I’m sure you’ll agree.) I should’ve been confident enough to tell him he was asking far too personal questions. But I wasn’t and I didn’t.I may have felt uncomfortable throughout, yet by avoiding bluntly telling him I wasn’t interested, I saved him feeling uncomfortable. Does that seem right?Is it an ingrained male dominance thing?Or am I reading too far into this?You could also say I shouldn’t really complain about the way I was spoken to yet still accept the discounted curry. Although he said it was because I was a new customer, I find it hard to believe he’d have been so generous was I an old man. I may be wrong, but I doubt it. More likely is he was trying to butter me up before making his advances. And when I accepted the discount, I – perhaps naively – thought he was just being nice.

And maybe I am guilty of trying to have it all – most times I go to a market I come away with a free passion fruit or a punnet of blueberries that the friendly market stall men have thrown in with the rest of my groceries. But I don ‘t know if this is because I’m a 21 year old girl, or whether it’s just something they do. And what am I supposed to say? “Please remove that passion fruit from my bag, actually. Save your kindness for some other poor student”?Should I just be flattered, thankful for my curry and accept that things like this happen? I mean, I’m sure it was just a harmless (and very poor) attempt at flirting… Or should I read further into this incident and try and reform how I act the next time something similar occurs?How would you have acted? I’d be keen to know your thoughts so let me know.

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