I hate winter and the early darkness it brings.
Walking home, slightly faster in the spaces between the street lights, feeling the cold pressing in on my chest, I look down at my clenched fist and see what my life has become. It’s only 5p.m. and yet poking out between my fingers is my make-shift weapon – my house keys. I grip them a little tighter, straightening them so that they protrude further, and then mentally work my way through my arsenal – my loud voice, my willingness to fight back, my mobile phone with triple zero (000) punched in – waiting only for me to hit ‘dial’. I walk tall, head up, shoulders back and paying attention. I make deliberate eye contact with people in my vicinity – sending the message: I am not your victim.
By the time I get home, unlock my door (checking over my shoulder one last time), I often feel as though I have run a marathon, in heels. But it’s not over yet. The house is dark and quiet, and my first task is to light it up like a Christmas tree and confirm it is as I left it – locked tight as a drum. Only then can I put my phone down, pour myself a glass of champagne and relax. Safe again, inside my ‘nest’.
After that, I’m fine. Mostly. But occasionally, no matter how hard I try, I can’t shake the truth that beyond the light spilling from my windows, darkness waits – not of the night, but in the heart of some lunatic, who statistically speaking is a man. I know people who live with others also get attacked, but living alone has heightened my awareness of this.
The disturbing thing is that I have no personal experience on which to base my behaviour. I have never been attacked or even threatened – which is not to say I have never felt threatened. The two are not mutually exclusive – as every woman knows only too well.
It is probably safe to say that most women, regardless of experience, live with a vacillating level of fear that one day we might be attacked. That there may come a time when we find ourselves in a situation from which we cannot get away. The threat of that looms like a shadow, until it dictates our actions, moderates our behaviour, silently leaches our liberty. That problem is then compounded by the widespread belief that this is the solution – that if only women would moderate, behave, adjust, be careful, dress conservatively… walk with their keys between their fingers, the attacks would stop. It’s a ridiculously flawed argument, particularly when we all know women who have been attacked wearing a tracksuit, walking home from the grocery store, in broad daylight. And it’s an offensive argument because it has its roots in victim blaming and shaming, rather than focusing on the criminal behaviour that has occurred and holding the person that committed it accountable. And if I can’t even walk to and from my local shops in safety, then I run the risk that my ‘nest’ becomes my ‘prison’.
I often ask the question – how did we come to this point? When did it become acceptable that half the population doubts a fundamental right – to feel secure in one’s own community, in one’s own home? To feel safe from the other 50%…
Unfortunately, I honestly can’t recall a time since my teens when I haven’t felt this way. Perhaps even before that – with warnings as a child not to talk to strangers and with advice on the difference between ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’. The disappointment in realising that my engagement with other human beings has been shaped by a constant stream of warnings, sits like a stone in my belly. And it is shocking that without any personal experience to base this fear on, my fear is still legitimate. It is devastating to realise I live in a society, a world, in which based on the statistics of violence against women, the problem is getting worse every day – not better (as in stopped).
But it’s even more sickening – if that’s possible – because, statistically, the people perpetrating the violence also aren’t ‘randoms’, but often people well known to the victim. Someone they trusted. Someone they may have even loved. Someone who was already in their house when they finally arrive home after running the gauntlet of dark streets and thought they were safe.
Before we had even reached the middle of the year (2015) in Australia 30 women had been killed. 27 of those by men.
But there is something darker that I struggle with… The truth that every day, because of the reality of those statistics, I find myself more and more doubting the men around me. With every act of violence perpetrated against a woman (anywhere in the world) my trust in men is eroded.
I’ve always said, don’t come to me with a problem, come to me with a solution. But I honestly don’t know what the solution is. What will it take for Australia (not the government, but you and I) to say “enough”? What will it take to end the tide of violence – because there is no ‘lock-out’ solution for this, and it’s not simply alcohol and drug fuelled. Because despite the programs and support groups and funding and awareness campaigns – all important and all part of finding the solution – the violence continues, seemingly unchecked.
And perhaps that’s the problem – that we are not checking it early enough. We are not getting ahead of the behaviour before it’s too late. Before the fist is raised, the knife is drawn, before the damage is done. Because this attitude that it is ok to threaten or harm women doesn’t come from nowhere. It has an origin, in the thousands of moments that went unchecked, until this corrupt seed of violence took root and grew, evolved and now subsumes. To stop it, we have to start early – when the men that they may become are still boys.
Those keys between my fingers are not my only weapon, our mutual unwillingness to accept any level of behaviour that threatens life and liberty, that is my real weapon. Every time we say ‘no’ to the sexist joke, the slanderous comment, the racist jab, the bullying, the aggression, the raised voice, the unequal pay-check, the biased performance review, the comment on what the female journalist was wearing or the female politician’s hair-style instead of her politics, every time we stare down the wolf-whistle, or challenge the thought terminating cliché – we pave a path for change. We check those unhealthy behaviours at the door. Refuse them entry into our lives. And every time we back someone else on that, we reinforce a new future. Both for ourselves and for every generation that comes after us.
Because the truth is, I don’t want to doubt the men in my life – your brother, your son, your friend, your husband…my next boyfriend. I don’t want to walk past men I don’t even know and think the worst of them – before I even have the chance to know who they are. And I’m tired of living in a first world country and feeling more at risk than when I lived in countries with bombs raining down around me, or earthquakes shaking me awake.
We talk of reclaiming the night, and women take to the streets and march in solidarity. And then we go home, alone, and cower, and check the dead bolt, and look under the bed, and call our friend to let her know we got home safely. It’s not enough that we reclaim the night, we need to claim our lives. And not just our own lives, but those of our men, because it is not possible for a community to grow and thrive if one half lives in fear of the other.
So tonight, start a meaningful conversation with one of the men in your lives. Let’s not wait for more funding, for new laws and policies that don’t have any enduring power to reach down into lives and effect change where change is most needed. Talk to your sons, your cousins, your brothers, your fathers, your uncles, your work colleagues, your boss, your boyfriends, your husbands, your lovers, your loves, your friends about how it feels to be a woman, walking home with her keys between her fingers, wondering if tonight is the night she fights for her life. And ask them to join you in checking the behaviour that leads to one woman dying every week in Australia.