Night walking [July 26]
We’ve all been there. Walking down a dark laneway at night, our senses suddenly hyper-acute, checking for danger. Listening behind us for footsteps breaking into a run. Listening ahead of us for footsteps falling silent. Using our ears because our eyes don’t work so well in the dark.
This has been my experience night after night as I’ve walked home from the local train station. When you’re a theatre critic night work is inevitable. Most of the time I feel lucky to be living only a ten-minute stroll to the train. And yet, night after night, I’ve had to steel myself to enter the long dark alley between the station and the end of my street.
The statistics are horrible. Two Australian women are killed every week. One in three Australian women have been physically assaulted. One in five Australian women have been sexually assaulted. Whilst more men than women are assaulted, and most assaults on women occur in the home, nevertheless a quarter of all assaults occur on the streets. Your eyes are probably glazing over right now from this barrage of brutal numbers. But we’ve all seen CCTV images of women being pursued down the street by the men who will soon kill them.
These images are the ones that haunt us when we’re out walking late at night with shadowy figures following close behind, our heart racing, our stride quickening.All women know this fear deep in their guts, even the tall, strong, middle-aged, flat-heeled ones like me.
‘Flat-heeled!’ I hear you say. ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’ We feminists have spent decades trying to persuade each other that we can – and should – wear whatever we like out there. That no one has the right to curb our impulses when we’re flicking through a wardrobe. That we shouldn’t have to dress conservatively to feel safe on the streets. And we’re right about that.
Still, it makes me anxious to see young women wearing heels so high that running would be impossible. I keep an eye on those young women as they walk ahead of me into the dark alley outside the train station, priming myself in case they need help. I wear flat heels when I’m planning to use that alley to get home after a night at the theatre. Just in case I have to run.
When I was a teenager men would sometimes follow me home from the train station. On a couple of occasions these men caught up to me, unzipped themselves and masturbated in front of me. One night on a dark platform my girlfriend and I were surrounded by a group of young men who began tugging at our clothes. That night we had to run.
When I was in my early twenties I did a course in self-defence for women. ‘Stand tall and shout at them’, we were told. ‘If that doesn’t work, try poking them in the eyes or kneeing them in the crotch. They won’t expect you to be aggressive’. Sometimes in that station laneway I ball my fists as I’m walking, hoping I’ll look tough. But no one can see how tough I am. It’s too dark.
Six months ago my fear prompted me to phone the local council and ask if they could install some lights in the laneway. The initial response was promising. There would be an inspection and someone would get back to me. The follow-up phone call was less promising. There was no budget for this kind of thing and besides, the council employee told me, there was plenty of light down there on the night of his inspection.
‘What was the moon like that evening?’ I enquired. With a full moon it’s not quite so bad in that alley.
‘Oh, there’s always moonlight,’ he replied cheerily.
Now I’m no scientist, but I’m pretty sure that for half of every month the moon provides about as much illumination as a candle in a cathedral – or less. It took all my willpower not to say ‘astronomy-fail’ out loud. Instead I reminded him there had recently been a number of night-time attacks on women in neighbouring suburbs. Some of those women never made it home. He agreed to ‘have a closer look’ at the lighting question.
A little while ago there was another phone call. Somehow they’d found money in the budget and solar-powered lights would be installed in the alley. Mr Moonlight and I congratulated each other on a job well done.
It’s a small victory but it feels huge. I’m sick to death of feeling afraid when I walk the streets alone at night. I’m sick of my own ambivalent feelings about what clothing women should wear to feel safe. I’m sick of having to convince myself that violence against women is not an inevitable part of the human condition.
Thirty years ago I marched in Reclaim The Night rallies. Back then I believed mass political protest would lead to permanent social change. These days my ambitions are more modest. I’m going to try to re-reclaim the night one solar light at a time. You might want to join me. And if anyone tells you that women should take responsibility for the violence visited upon them, you could try saying, ‘Yeah, you’re right, and of course there’s always moonlight’.
(a version of this article was published in The Age on October 18th 2015)