This article was written by Catherine Irving Bowman
I walked home alone the other night, less than a kilometre from my friend’s house to mine. It was one-thirty in the morning. Three streets and a children’s playground. The area where I live is just a familiar leafy Melbourne suburb no different to Brunswick, the suburb where Jill Meagher was abducted and murdered. I tried not to think of her.
For my seventeenth birthday my parents gave me a rape alarm, a little purple disc with a chain that, when pulled out, makes a sound like a car alarm. When they gave it to me I laughed. That night, walking home, I squeezed it in my hand, playing with the chain, ready to dislodge it. I looked over my shoulder every hundred metres, and cringed away when I heard a car approaching in the distance. My breath grew tight in my chest as I marched up a hill and I realised absently that if I needed to run, I probably wouldn’t be able to run as far as I’d like. I gritted my teeth and kept walking.
It took less than ten minutes to get back home again, but it felt like longer. I’ve got no shame in admitting that, as I walked, I was afraid. But I was also angry, and mostly at myself. It’s a lot easier to be determined to reclaim the night when you’re marching with thousands of supportive men and women. Despite everything I believe, despite being so sure of myself that I refused to let my friend walk me home, or call a taxi, or call for a lift, this bravado evaporates when I find myself walking home alone in the middle of the night, with no real way of defending myself if I ever needed to.
It may just be a perception fostered by the media, but these past few months haven’t been a great time to be a woman in Melbourne, particularly if you’re young and good-looking and minding your own business as you do something like walk a few hundred metres home from the pub, or go and have a beer with a man you assumed was a friend. The abduction and murder of Jill Meagher and 22-year-old Sarah Cafferkey has profoundly affected the mindset of most, if not all Melbournians: why have our streets suddenly become so unforgiving? Not to mention the as yet unknown man who has sexually assaulted eight women in three months, all twenty minutes away from my own suburb. He grabs them after they get off the bus. That area is not a dangerous one –it is middle class or slightly above, well-lit at night, by all appearances safe. I’m there often myself; my friend gets the bus there to see a chiropractor. If someone was to tell us that we were putting ourselves in danger by doing so, I’d tell them to shut the hell up and worry about their own lives. So why am I so afraid when I’m walking down the street that I’ve lived on for more than half of my life?
Are men afraid? When they go out for a drink and wander home, the edges of the world still hazy, do they listen hard for someone walking behind them? Honestly, I find it hard to believe that they do. Statistically, the most dangerous obstacle on a man’s way home is a street fight, which at least leaves them alive and intact most of the time –unless you’re an Indian man living in Melbourne, in which instance middle-class white teenagers will take it upon themselves to murder you for no reason other than “we don’t like ethnics”. As I’m not a person of colour, this is a topic for another day, but the point remains –I am scared of walking home alone, while my younger brother is not. If I’m totally honest, I’m even uncomfortable walking alone during the day: once when I was jogging, a group of men having a barbeque leaned over their fence and bellowed “How much?” While it definitely made me run faster for the next 500 metres, it certainly didn’t do much for any feelings of personal well-being.
I went to Reclaim the Night after Jill Meagher’s murder. I signed the Destroy the Joint pledge. I swore privately to myself that I would take responsibility for my own life and my own body and my own spirit, and they were things that nobody had any right to interfere with. I have every damn right in the world to walk home safely, and don’t even get me started on whether that right is diminished depending on what I’m wearing. But as I said before, it’s much easier to claim this right when you’re in the midst of a crowd of strong, intelligent, like-minded people, rather than when you’re on your own and a little bit drunk and not one hundred percent sure if the batteries in your rape alarm are still working. I hate to think that I would ever bow to the rape-apologists and make myself a “smaller target” by organising my life around the activities least likely to get me assaulted (although, seeing as most rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, I guess becoming a hermit is the only answer). But I also hate being scared, and I’m sure I would hate being attacked. Women in Melbourne, at least right now, are caught between a rock and a hard place, and the worst part is we’ve done absolutely nothing wrong.