A couple of years back, reports emerged of self-styled ‘Muslim patrols’ operating in parts of London. Passersby were harassed for holding hands, being worse for wear and other perceived offences against the patrollers’ idea of decency. Videos of these confrontations were posted on the internet, and soon the mainstream media were covering the story. Mainstream Muslims condemned the patrols and the police made arrests.

The idea that a small number of individuals could curtail basic freedoms in a British city provoked outrage at the time, but the fact is that something not so very different still happens everyday, on a greater scale, all across the country. I refer to the sexual harassment of girls and women by men.

It’s the subject of a hard-hitting piece by Daisy Buchanan in the Guardian:

“My Mum once told me her biggest regret was that she’d brought her daughters up to be so polite. It happened after one of my little sisters came home in tears. A ‘friendly’ man at the train station had started making comments about her legs and asking if she had a boyfriend. ‘I really wanted to ignore him, but I didn’t want to be rude! I didn’t know what to do!’ she wept. She was 14 at the time…”

“British Transport Police have just announced that the number of sexual offences on trains and at stations has gone up by 25% in the past year, and is now at record levels. Any travelling woman who has ever sunk down in her seat and opened her book, only to be tapped on the shoulder and asked ‘What are you reading, then?’ will be surprised that the numbers aren’t higher.”

While statistics exist for criminal offences, it is hard to put figures on other forms of harassment. However, I think it would be difficult to find many women who haven’t at some point been harassed.

It’s easy for us in the West to look at other cultures and condemn them for treating their female members as second class citizens. But while oppression in all it’s forms should be condemned, we shouldn’t be so smug about our own culture – in which women have their freedom of movement curtailed in ways that most men don’t even have to think about:

“Every incident of harassment I witness, whether it’s at first- or second-hand, is making my world a little bit smaller and scarier. I don’t go out dancing any more, even though I adore it – because I know from experience that something bad might happen if I have to get home after midnight and the streets are full of potentially terrifying men who might not take it well if I don’t want to stop and say hello.

“….during a chat about exercise a friend mentioned that she’s stopped running because of the number of men who will shout ‘compliments’ and block her path to get her to slow down and talk to them. She misses running outside in the fresh air desperately, but the anxiety the harassment causes her is too great for her to risk it.”

The idea that women need to be ‘careful’ about where they go, at what time and who with, has become so routine as to be seen as a ‘normal’ part of life – but why should it be? If men suddenly found themselves under the same pressure to limit their movements, there’d be an almighty backlash.

This is often presented as a feminist issue – which, of course, it is. But it should also be seen as matter of fundamental freedom. Just because the threat to liberty doesn’t come from a tyrannical government or an extremist organisation, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t a form of oppression.

One can always point out that the problem is much worse in other countries – including some not so very far away from us. But that only underlines the truth that this is a cultural problem, rather than a hardwired biological one.

With enough determination all sorts of malign behaviours can be purged from a culture. We need to make more progress on this one.