It must have been the uniforms

Todays guest poster is Ohmykozy, who lives with her family in Sydney’s western suburbs and doesn’t take crap from anybody

Picture this: teenage girls out for the day, accused of shoplifting and taken aside by security guards wanting to ask them a few questions. A normal Saturday afternoon in the local shopping centre? We should all hope not, if a recent incident in a Sydney shopping centre is any indication of the way security guards behave toward young women.

Let’s put aside for now the chain of judgment errors and procedural mistakes that led to these girls being taken to a surveillance-free service corridor to be interrogated and have their bags searched. Those responsible have apologised to the girls and their families, and have promised to rectify the shortcomings in training and systems that allowed this to happen.

Consider instead the thing that cannot be altered with “better training” and “improved security procedures”. Consider the verbal and physical intimidation that these girls were subjected to while they established their innocence. And ask “Why?”

For several minutes the girls stood with their backs to the wall in a corridor that lacked security cameras, shielded from public view by a guard in the doorway, while two other guards accused them of stealing and lying. Under this barrage of accusations, and concerned for their personal safety, they felt compelled to empty the contents of their bags onto the floor of the corridor. When no stolen goods were found the guards allowed them to leave, but not without a few parting shots about the things being returned to the girls’ bags ““ comments that the girls took to be accusations of earlier theft.

During the investigation of this incident the senior guard described his manner toward the girls as “light hearted” and “humorous”. There are two possibilities here. Either he knew that he had dismally failed in his conduct toward these young girls, and was trying to cover up. Or ““ and this thought is possibly scarier ““ he really had no idea of the effect of his words on them.

Why did the guards conduct themselves this way? Was it because of the girls’ age? Or their gender? I doubt they’d have dealt with a group of 40-year-old women, or men, in this way. Or was it because the guards were in uniform, in authority, and (so they might think) in a position to behave however they wished. I suspect it’s all three. One of the tragedies here is that we teach our little girls that people in uniforms are safe and responsible, yet in this case is was they who left them terrified.

The coda to the incident came a week later when the girls and two of their mothers returned to the shopping centre to receive a formal apology. While we waited in the centre court a man walking by stopped to chastise the girls for taking up so much space in the walkway. They weren’t (unless of course he actually did need 5 metres or more to get past), and I doubt he’d have said anything if he had realised that the two adults standing nearby were part of the group. I think he spoke from a position of assumed authority, even though he wasn’t wearing a uniform.

You see, we’d come straight from school, and the girls were wearing theirs.

Categories: culture wars, gender & feminism, Politics

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4 replies

  1. I hope those mothers ripped him a new orifice, and then the security guards. I read somewhere that a lot of people who fail to become police then try to become security guards. That is not to say that there are not people out there who are security guards because they want to be and are good at their job, but it is saying that there are a lot of people out there with a uniform complex who wanted to be police and carry guns and this is the next best thing they can do. I suspect the three guards the girls ran into fit this mould. I also suspect that they picked the girls because they could intimidate them and feel like big men. What heroes.

  2. I’m privy to some of the background of this incident, and I know that the senior security guard had no recognition of wrongs of his conduct until his boss spelled it out “imagine if your sister was taken into a dark corridor by three strange men and yelled at” etc etc, at which point he promptly was horrified at the idea that one of “his” women (instead of 3 young teens accused of shoplifting) might be scared out of her wits by such behaviour.
    I’m relieved that he’s not totally sociopathically dissociated, but once again it’s a man who doesn’t see women as real people: his upset is probably more to empathising with wounded masculine outrage from the girls’ fathers rather than empathy with his sister in such a hypothetical situation, let alone empathising with the girls.

  3. I think that’s a good point, tigtog. His distress about such a thing happening to his sister, though apparently genuine, is more likely to stem from a feeling of offense caused to himself, rather than any deep concern for her feelings. That’s a fairly normal human reaction. However during his “leave of absence” from the shopping centre he’ll have had ample time to meditate on this. And so will his fellow guards, who are I’m sure are all well aware of the reason for his absence.
    Like all discipline, though, it may not “take” first time. I’ll proceed, then, with caution next time I allow my daughter to shop there.
    Mindy – your comment about those who fail the Police entrance exams was exactly what we were thinking at the time! Perhaps we should be thankful that they did fail, if this is the attitude they carry with them – heaven forbid that men like this should be allowed anything more than a walkie talkie attached to their belts!

  4. This situation was at the forefront of my mind when I was reading the blogospheric reaction to the Marriott hotel’s introduction of a no-men floor and lounge in their Indiana, USA hotel.
    Putting aside for a moment all the other issues (charging women more for the privilege, adding femme-y extras like chenille throw rugs and higher-end bath products, class privilege and religion issues, and so on) – there were some reactions criticising the very idea of men-free spaces. These reactions seemed to divide into three or four types:
    1. “A no-men floor doesn’t keep women any safer from rape. We should just have more security guards instead.”
    2. “Women shouldn’t respond to harassment by hiding away. It’s an inadequately feminist response – everyone should stand up to their harassers instead, 100% of the time, it’s the only correct way to respond to the Patriarchy. Because I say so.”
    3. “This is victim-blaming, apartheid and bad. We should lock the men away, not the women.”
    4. “If we have no-men spaces, that means automatically that any women appearing in mixed spaces will be more freely harassed.”
    I don’t know. I have problems with all of these arguments. (3) falls down when the floor becomes optional, so long as women aren’t subtly or obviously pushed towards the no-men floor option; so long as it truly remains optional. I would like the choice of no-men spaces when travelling, as well as here in my hometown. In this world, here and now, a retreat to a place of womanly solidarity can be a space for feminist organisation as well as a space of comfort, friendship and solidarity. It would be nice to live in the post-revolution world where these things aren’t compromised in mixed-gender spaces, but we’re in this world right now.
    (4) annoys me in less well defined ways. Perhaps mostly because that sort of justification for quashing women’s spaces seems to assume (2); that all women should take on “role-model” status and ignore or confront leers and harassment all the time in order to make things better for everyone. Jessica Sierra copped hideous criticism from all sides when her respond to harassment was withdrawal; why do we think we get to dictate how other people should respond to being harassed? Women shouldn’t be forced to fight all the time for the greater good. Sometimes what some of us really need is a bit of breathing space, without being jeered and sneered at for that choice.
    So, back to (1): “A no-men floor doesn’t keep women any safer from rape. We should just have more security guards instead.”
    Firstly, rape isn’t the only thing women sometimes want to retreat from. Even perfect and lovely security guards standing RIGHT THERE can’t protect women from leers, chat-up lines, and the subtler forms of sexual assault.
    And secondly, who will save us from the security guards?

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