Violence Against Women: Not in MY Backyard—Er, Subway Car?

by Guest on March 22nd, 2011
in Know Your History, Wear the Shirt and tagged , , , ,

There are many ways of turning the wheels of history. Sometimes an act that seems small and obvious at the time changes the course of a group’s actions. Like the butterfly wings flutter that changes the climate halfway around the world, I believe every one on the subway car described by author and co-founder of, Deborah Siegel, will forever think twice before looking away from a violent act.

The other day I was riding the number 2 train home from the city, thinking about what I might write here in honor of Women’s History Month and feeling overpowered by current affairs. The tsunami, earthquake, nuclear disaster. Senseless murders in Libya. The gang rape of an 11-year-old girl. This month, I sense such widening circles of sorrow swirling, it’s easier, I confess, to shut off and just hold close those I love. If I pause long enough to truly let the world in, I fear I’ll be carried out on a wave, swallowed up by a sea of emotion from which there is no return. And then, there’s the tragedy going on right in our own backyards—that which lifts us out of our chairs and just kind of compels us, without thinking, to act.

Here is what I mean:

On the subway seat across from me, a woman sits with a large-sized purse taking up half the seat next to her. A hulking man enters the car and sits down—partly on the seat with the bag, and partly on the woman who owns the bag. The woman gets up in a huff.

“You don’t sit on women,” she says.

“Your bag was taking up half the seat,” he says.

“You don’t sit on women!”

“Your bag was taking up half the seat!”

This seems like it’s going to go on for a while. People nearby are getting edgy. I try to catch the woman’s eye, shoot her a glance of solidarity.

An older woman sitting closest to her catches her eye instead and says, “Let it go. You’re the bigger person.”

The two women chat. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but the man is listening all the while. The first woman gets off at the next stop. The man, it seems, is not through.

“She’s the bigger person huh?” he says to the older woman.

“Oh you’ve got the wrong one. The wrong one. Don’t you start with me now,” she says.

As the subway doors close, the dozens ensue. I try not to listen but, like a rubbernecked driver who can’t look away from a car wreck, I’m compelled. The words “Your mama…” “Your wife…” “Your mama…” “You’ve got the wrong one…” pour from the pair repetitively, and in escalating tones. There’s a feeling of gas rising to the point of combustion.

And then: THUNK. Sound of woman’s head being slammed against subway wall. Next, a piercing wail.

Violence, when it takes place right in front of you, has a quality of the surreal. I’m floating outside of my body, watching the scene from the ceiling, not sure that it’s happening. Suddenly, I’m standing up and slinking out of the way as three burly men (well, one burly man and two Hasids) move toward the pair, drawn to the violence with as much compulsion as I’m drawn away. The entire car is unsettled. On an ordinary subway ride home, life has become undone.

I’ve opted for flight, instead of fight, and I feel myself moving without a destination. My only desire is to get away. As I head toward the far end of the car I make out words coming at me:

“Aw, don’t press the button.”

Button? I follow my fellow passengers’ gaze and see the button a few feet in front of me, on the wall.

“Don’t do it.”

Slowly, these words jolt me from my frozen state.

There’s a big red button in every subway car that you push in cases of emergency. That button. Red means stop. When someone pushes the button, it means there’s going to be a delay.

“Lady, I just wanna get home.”

And that’s when it dawns on me: the people in the car are more concerned with getting home than alerting the conductor that an act of violence has taken place.

I push the button.

“A woman has been hit,” I say to the wall, leaning in.

Crackle crackle. Something inaudible. And then: “Do you need help?”

“A woman has been hit,” I say again, my mouth nearly touching the wall.

Crackle crackle. “….help?”

“There’s a violent man in this car!” I scream.

This does the trick. The conductor appears thirty seconds later and enters the car where the man and woman still sit, separated by bystanders who are actively keeping them apart.

“Who needs to leave?” the conductor says, moving toward the scene.

I can’t make out the rest, but it appears that the woman has decided not to press charges. The conductor exits the car. The subway lurches forward, and we continue on our way.

I get off a few stops later and note that the man and woman are still sitting there, each in their own silent huff.

A woman—an older woman—has been hit. In front of my eyes. Kitty Genovese comes to mind: a woman raped, a sidewalk full of people, and no one willing to call for help. People, what planet are we on?

I can’t stop a tsunami. But I can press a button. Truly, it’s the least I can do.

About Deborah:
Deborah Siegel is the author of Sisterhood, Interrupted, co-editor of the anthology Only Child, and a founding partner of She blogs at The Pink and Blue Diaries. Read more about her work at Follow on Twitter @deborahgirlwpen.


8 Responses to Violence Against Women: Not in MY Backyard—Er, Subway Car?

  1. Mike Sutton posted the following comment on Violence Against Women: Not in MY Backyard˜Er, Subway Car?:
    It‚s all about bad manners really. In Japan a woman (or man) would never hog a seat with a bag. They think about their fellows needs.

    And as for conducting a “sit-down protest” upon the person of another (no matter how selfish they are being) – unheard of on a Japanese commuter train.

    So we have a rudely selfish person who has “pressed the anger button” of a righteous man. And we know that the righteous man is the type who engages in road rage. Jack Katz has written some excellent work on that theme.

    And it looks like he is choosing his victims carefully as cowards do. I bet he would not sit on a tough looking man with his bag on the seat – nor engage with a tough looking man who took up the cause of another against his transgressions.

    It‚s a shame nobody tough looking told the “husky righteous man” to stop being so physically righteous to rude and inconsiderate people who are weaker then he. That way the older woman would not have got a knock upside her head.

    And then you pressed the button him too. I wonder who his next victim was/will be? And I wonder what next the woman with the bag will do as she goes about the world . What further ill effects on others will she have?

  2. Mike, you deepen my already deepened sense of outrage — thank you for these comments. And I, too, am a big fan of Jackson Katz’s work. So interesting to think about the cross-cultural comparison with Japan. I’ve never been, but I hear the subways there are a lot cleaner than ours, too!

  3. #
    Becky Kruse Gjendem Wow.
    Lana Lawrence Thanks for sharing this, Gloria. I’m glad that emergency button got pushed even with the pressure not to do so. It seems like such a metaphor for so many acts of violence that others don’t want reported for a variety of reasons – child abuse in particular. Pushing that button is going to disrupt the family…. Also, on your blog, it is difficult to tell who the author is – under the byline it just reads “guest.”

  4. Aletha says:

    I have also been struggling not to be overpowered by current affairs. The nuclear disaster especially. It is not over, not by a long shot, and now they are saying it may take weeks to restart those cooling pumps. Helen Caldicott said if one of those reactors blows up, it would be far worse than Chernobyl, and “many millions could get cancer.” It is hard to think about history when something like that hangs over our heads!

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  6. Hell Cat says:

    You know, it’s a very strong indication, to me, of the respect level going towards those not as physically able to protect themselves. I stood down my drunk 6’2+ Texan stepfather about 7 years ago when he was screaming at my baby stepbrother. Holy crap, it was scary. I’m a girl, standing up to a man that could pound me down. But. I’m also my mother’s daughter so I’m scrappy. And I wouldn’t and couldn’t stand for making my brother (who was 12 at the time) shrink away and cry. Again.

    And then I ran to my step-grandmother who demands respect and doesn’t suffer fools lightly. He was taken out of the house not long after and put into my stepsister’s home. When that didn’t work, it was to her house. He wasn’t allowed back home until stepdad had cleaned up his act. And this was all done by a 4’11, 70-pound soaking wet woman.

    I was tossed out of the house not long after. Supposedly for not having a job or being productive (because unskilled workers have such an easy time of it) but it was all because of the standing up. It’s not easy. Far from, in fact. But you can’t shrink away in the end. Having the flight response isn’t wrong. It’s smart until you can get into a position of doing something for real.

    I stand up for my elderly godmother, too. Because you have. I’ve screamed down customer service reps who have belittled and made her cry, to feel inferior. It’s not physical violence but for a 77-year-old woman it can be just as terrifying. And I don’t yell at customer service people 99.99% of the time, either. They’re doing a job just like anyone but you don’t speak down to someone unless you expect it back. When my godmother comes to me in tears, it’s on. The woman has battled a lot in life and has managed to not land in the muck with the rest.

    Internal strength and fortitude should be applauded not degraded.

    And then I remember the 15 millions times a day when I look the other way and I realize how much I’m not helping the situation either.

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  8. Lauren says:

    That’s messed up what happened but I’m glad you pushed the button. I’d like to be more like that I think you did it out of defiance you hadn’t even planned to but the fact that the passengers cared more about THEIR needs and not of a woman who got hit in the head does speak volumes. Kudos to you you remind me of the lady who told off that pervert that flashed her.

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