By Saloni Bhugra
On Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, a woman was harassed, groped, and raped in a SEPTA train near Philadelphia. Initial reports indicated that it happened in the presence of other passengers that filmed the incident and failed to intervene, though Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer later pushed back against that framing at a press conference.
The alleged assault happened after 40 minutes of harassment after which the accused ripped off the victim’s pants and raped her. Stollsteimer said two witnesses filmed portions of the encounter and one of them shared it with the police for investigation. “This is the El, guys — we’ve all ridden it. People get off and on at every single stop. That doesn’t mean when they get on and they see people interacting that they know rape is occurring,” he said at the conference.
But the public nature of the assault highlighted concerns about safety in public spaces. In an interview with Skedline, Harshita Chhatlani, the founder of The Safe Space Project, said, “the incident is more terrifying than it is infuriating. Incidents like these are a constant reminder of how unsafe the public space can be for gender minorities. It’s a greater reminder of how less of a priority sexual assault is for policymakers and implementers.”
Chhatlani said in situations like this bystanders filming can serve two sides, one being to provide proof — as seen in the George Floyd murder case, “on the flip side, it translates into inaction and the need to break a viral news which comes off as apathetic.”
According to a Stats Canada report from 2018, one in three women experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in public.
Audrey Mountfort, 16, said she has never truly felt safe. “Since I was 11 years old I’ve received unwanted attention from men in public spaces, including catcalling, being followed, touched or even chased.”
Chloe Moulton, 19, said, “I honestly never feel safe, more so at night but having said that there have been so many incidents on TTC during the day that I have been harassed so badly that I’ve been brought to tears on the bus.”
Aamina A., 27, said, “As a woman, I’m constantly worrying about how cropped my top is, will I get home before dark, is too much cleavage showing?” She said even though she knows society has created these problems for women and we shouldn’t be worried about these things, “it is impossible” to not worry.
Chhatlani said that the trauma of the victim remains unmatched, but the incident can have a major effect on immediate and extended witnesses. “People of gender minorities anyway feel unsafe in public spaces — an incident like this may destroy their idea of safety completely. They may start avoiding public transportation or trains altogether,” she said.
According to the Stats Canada report, one in five victims feel blamed for the abuse they experienced. “We’re also afraid that in case something does happen, the support on a legal and/or social level are next to nothing….so, as someone who has been on the receiving end, we don’t just receive the trauma and the pain – we also have to bear the burden of not being believed and being shunned from social circles,” Chhatlani said.
Women have been posting self-defense tactics on social media like TikTok. All the sources Skedline talked to for this story confirmed that they take measures like carrying keys between their fingers in public.
The discussion about the incident brought up one common thought: “It could’ve been me.”
Chhatlani said the common concerns of women around her remain the same as they were decades ago. “In a situation like this, the onus of being safe is thrown on persons of gender minorities. While this is an unfair situation, it is, unfortunately, the realistic one. I hate saying this but the answer to this boils down to carrying objects like pepper spray and taking other self-defense measures,” she said.