Shelley Bridgeman: Lone women are easy targets

IT WAS late June and we were seated at a crowded gate at New York's Kennedy airport waiting for our flight to Honolulu when two young men, clearly on a mission, walked past me. They stopped right in front of a young woman and told her that they wanted two particular seats - the one on which she was sitting and the one to its left. (There were two spare seats to the right of the woman.)

She looked bewildered then picked up her bag and moved across one seat. The two men then, with no word of thanks or other sign of appreciation, sat in the two seats that they'd coveted - leaving me and anyone else who'd witnessed it wondering exactly what had just occurred.

It was a scenario that neatly illustrated an unseemly truth: lone women are easy targets if they have the temerity to inconvenience others.

The men were intently studying something on the screen of the same portable device. It was clear they needed to be seated together. But why had they not taken the two spare adjacent seats rather than get the woman to move along? It took me 15 minutes to work out that these men were associated with the group they'd sat beside. I knew this because once in that time one of the men had grunted good-naturedly in their general direction.

I don't know if the woman had also worked this out or whether she simply remained mystified as to what had driven this situation. I'm sure I wasn't the only one giving her sympathetic looks for being the target of this odd behaviour.

It was rude however you looked at it.

Firstly, there was no sense that the men were asking the woman to move; they demanded it. Secondly, absorbed in a mutual project, these men were a self-contained little unit. They had no need of proximity to their bigger group. Sitting one seat away would not have disturbed them in the slightest. Yet they took it upon themselves to inconvenience the young woman. (She actually seemed shocked by the incident.)

There had been an unpalatable power play in operation as they addressed her. Thanks to multiple aspects of asymmetry between the participants, this encounter came perilously close to bullying. They were men; she was a woman. There were two of them; she was alone. They were standing; she was sitting. They knew what was going on; she was bewildered by their request. They were the protagonists; she was their unwitting pawn. They belonged to a larger group; she was clearly flying solo.

It was a scenario that neatly illustrated an unseemly truth: lone women are easy targets if they have the temerity to inconvenience others.

Pushing them around to suit the needs of others has become an accepted part of our social landscape. Lone women travellers are often asked to give up their seat on aeroplanes so that couples may sit together. A friend of mine grumbles that during nearly every outing to a restaurant or cafe she is interrupted by other patrons who wish to borrow a chair from her table - even though there may be dozens of other unoccupied seats in the venue.

On the face of it these are insignificant details. But, for someone who is frequently out and about on their own, these many small instances combine to produce a snowball effect. It's as if there's some sort of subtle yet concerted campaign targeted towards anyone who dares to be caught alone in public while being female.

Once I was in a party of three in the Air New Zealand lounge at Auckland Airport. Having traversed the entire room and found not a single spare seat, I asked a lone woman occupying one chair in a cluster of four if it would be okay if we joined her. She stood up immediately, picked up her bag and left without a word.

Although it's well accepted lounge etiquette that travellers share seat groupings at peak times and although my request was polite and apologetic, I'd clearly offended this woman. It must have been the last straw in a morning of being picked on for being alone. Mind you, if she thought that was bad, she'd have been horrified by the behaviour of those two young men at JFK.

Have you noticed that women out in public alone are expected to shift to accommodate the needs of larger groups? Have you been on the receiving end of this treatment? Are men on their own treated similarly?

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