A few days ago, I found myself stranded in Marseilles at night, after the bus I was supposed to take turned up full. Not a problem; I could always hop on a rented bike and make my way back to the train station. The streets were mostly empty of cars at that time, although lots of people were still leaving bars on foot. I couldn’t follow the traffic, and so I ended up fumbling a little to find where I was supposed to be riding, and that’s how (as I later discovered), I failed to notice the traffic light.
I rode about a hundred metres before a police car slowed down beside me. I didn’t realise they were stopping for me at first, and I just ignored them. It was only when the man on the passenger seat angrily shouted at me to stop that I realised there was a problem. Needless to say, I had absolutely no idea what it was.
‘What do you think I’m stopping you for?’ he shouted. ‘To look at your legs?’
He let me stand there completely puzzled for a couple of minutes before he deigned reveal that I had ridden straight through the red light – which I hadn’t seen, having come from the wrong side of the road. When it became obvious that I truly hadn’t seen it, he didn’t relent. I should have taken a taxi if I was in ‘that state’, he said. I was putting myself in danger, I deserved to be fined, and later at night when I took off my makeup (I wasn’t wearing any), I should really take the time to think about what I’d done. After a couple of minutes, I tried to cut him short by telling him that I had my wallet with me and was ready to pay the fine, since I’d obviously made a mistake. That was not what he wanted; he told me one more time how irresponsible I was, and then drove on.
I then cycled all the way to the train station, pausing at every light (as I always do, at least when I see them) and watching other cyclists gleefully ride on every time the light turned red. I missed my bus by just a couple of minutes and had to wait for half an hour before I could finally go home.
The part that annoyed me about this incident was not that this policeman stopped me. He was right to do so; I’d made an honest mistake, but it was still a mistake. I’m fine with the fact that he shouted, too, although I have absolutely no illusions about it – if I had been a man, I’m positive he would not have taken the risk of entering a shouting match. But what was the need to mention my legs? Or my (visibly non-existent) makeup? To imply that I was an irresponsible party girl who should take a taxi instead of riding home on her own? I’m quite certain that in this case, he would have done better to hand me a breathalyser. Instead I had to stand still and bow my head through five minutes of angry lecture that eventually made me miss my bus home.
I know that policemen are understaffed and that they put up with more aggressiveness than they should on a daily basis. The thing is, that’s the story of my life, too. I’m a teacher. I put up with bullshit all the time. Do I start shouting at students even when I don’t genuinely think they deserve punishment? No. I punish them when I need to and give them a friendly warning otherwise. And I certainly don’t humiliate them based on their gender.
I know that these people didn’t know about me. They don’t know that I’m one of few cyclists in the area who actually take the trouble of respecting traffic regulations, instead of acting like I’m some sort of cross between a pedestrian and a car and therefore I get a free pass everywhere. They don’t know I’ve grown up around here, and therefore I’m always careful whatever the lights look like, because I’ve seen so many drivers fail to heed them anyway. But still. I’m doing my best, all the time. One of the reasons I don’t want to drive is that someone has to use public transports, if we want to get rid of the dictature of cars one of these days. Very often, it’s a pain in the backside to wait for the bus or take a bike when it’s late at night and I’m tired, but I still do it. And I insist on going wherever I want at whatever hour I want precisely because I’m a woman and I’m tired to hearing that I shouldn’t be allowed to go out on my own because of my gender. And the one time I make a tiny mistake, what do I get? A humiliating dressing-down by strangers who call me a drunk bimbo and tell me I shouldn’t be allowed outside on my own, and who tell me I should shell out for a taxi, all because the city can’t be arsed to have enough fucking buses circulating at night.