Laila is a writer with ridiculously luscious hair. She writes about race, travel, and being a vegan Desi queen; she’s a musician, has huge brown eyes, and a rescue snake called Princess Maggie.
“I was about 20 and it was summer. I was wearing a strappy top and a flowy skirt — not a tight skirt." She catches herself and pulls a face. “Not that it makes any difference. I was on the bus, and it was rammed.”
Laila was stood by the double doors of the bus. A guy sitting next to her, on the first set of chairs to the doors, was staring at her very strangely. Whenever men make her feel uncomfortable, Laila makes it known. But today she was hungover and tired, so she just tried to ignore it.
“I was not in the mood that day. Sometimes you call that shit out, and sometimes you’re like 'Ugh, forget it.'" So she side-stepped him and turned around.
Even though she’d turned away, she could feel him staring at her: “You know when you can feel someone's eyes on you?” She looked back at him to try to work out what he was up to. “He was looking at his phone, then at me, then angling his phone. I thought he was playing some weird game on his phone at first, but then he turned it slightly, light flashed on the screen, and I could see what it was. It was me. I knew it was me.”
"I looked him square in the eyes and said ‘What are you doing?’ and he just completely ignored me.” She could tell he was pretending not to hear her, so this time she tapped him and asked again: “I raised my voice and repeated ‘What are you doing?’ then people started turning around and staring at me." Hoping someone would back her up, she told her fellow commuters what was going on, but disappointingly, everyone stayed silent and avoided the situation.
“I had physically touched him, and he still hadn’t said anything. He must have heard me, though, because he locked his phone, put it in his pocket, and shuffled away to look out the window.”
Laila then had to weigh up her options: She could either stay on the bus, grab him, pull the headphones out of his ears and demand his phone, or she could get off the bus and try and go about her day. She, like most of us, chose the latter.
For Laila, assault is infuriatingly common because of her race. “I’ve been through a lot of assault before, some serious. It’s just so much more common toward people who aren’t white, so I get a lot of shit, and most of the time I do stop and call it out, but on that day, I didn’t.” I stop and correct her, because she did call it out. She tapped him and questioned him and she asked for help — it wasn’t her fault that nothing happened or that no one helped.
We talk about when she was in Japan. I mention that I heard phone manufacturers have made it impossible to disable the shutter sound on camera phones sold there because upskirting happens so much. She tells us that she saw men taking pictures up women’s skirts on public transport and on shopping mall escalators. “I even saw a man do it at Disney World.”
"Women are so used to internalizing shit like this. I just sometimes think, 'This is it. I’m a brown girl, I just go about my life, and this is the shit that happens to me.'”
She pauses for a second and looks at me and Eliza with an attitude-filled-frown: “Do you know what I mean? You just get worn down by taking this shit constantly. For me, that day was such an invasion of privacy.”
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).