As those of you who live in Melbourne have most likely heard (and those of you in the rest of the world may not have), a 17 year old school girl, Masa Vukotic, was murdered on Tuesday night at around 6.50pm in her local park. It was still light out. Masa was in her final year of high school, and it has been reported that she enjoyed taking walks in the evening to relax.
I get that. I’ve been there. In highschool, I was out in my neighbourhood almost every night, either walking with my mum, or friends, or (fairly often) alone. If I was alone, I wore headphones. Why? Because I was obsessed with music, as many teenagers are, and because it’s fairly boring to walk alone in silence. Plus, it helps you relax.
And you know what? There is nothing wrong with that. Let me repeat: there is nothing wrong with a young woman walking ALONE wearing headphones. By doing what she was doing, Masa was NOT asking to have a stranger run up and STAB HER TO DEATH. She was not provoking it, she was not asking for it, she was not ‘tempting fate’ or ‘creating an opportunity’ or being unsafe. And yet almost every single news report I have read has mentioned that she was wearing headphones. Why? To me, mentioning that she was wearing headphones is asking her to take some of the blame for what happened to her. As though if she wasn’t wearing headphones when she walked through the park, a homicidal psychopath may not have decided to randomly stab her to death for absolutely no reason at all.
As women, we are constantly taught that we do not have the same right to public space as men. We should not walk alone (ESPECIALLY not at night), or go to clubs alone, or travel alone. I’ve felt it myself on the footpath, or the stairs at work, where I am the one expected to move out of the way. I’ve felt it when riding my bike to work, where male cyclists zoom past me with no warning as though I have no place on a bike path (I am pretty slow, but that’s no excuse!). I’ve felt it sitting on the train, when the guy next to me is spread out over two seats and I am crushed in the corner. And you know what? It SUCKS and I HATE it. And I NEVER NEVER EVER want to be told that I shouldn’t walk alone in the park, or listen to music, or do anything that I want to do because I am endangering my own safety. Which, consequently, is pretty much exactly what Homicide squad chief Detective Inspector Mick Hughes is saying to the women of Melbourne: ‘I suggest to people, particularly females, they shouldn’t be alone in parks’; and ‘We just need to a be little bit more careful, a little bit more security conscious’.
Well guess what, Mr Hughes? As a woman, I am CONSTANTLY conscious of my security. I think about it all the goddamn time. I carry my keys in my hand so that I am ready to get straight in my car or else maul and attack someone with them. I leave my valuables at home when I go out alone, and I often hide my phone in my clothing so that no one will try to steal it. I even turn my engagement ring upside down or take it off altogether to reduce the risk of me looking like a good target to be mugged. I am constantly, terrifyingly, horrifically aware of who is walking around me on the street, particularly if it’s a man, or who is sitting near me on the train. I make up escape plans in my head as I walk. I know where all the service stations in my area are, in case I ever need to run to one. I don’t wear heels when I’m walking alone so that I can run. I keep a look out for people who might help me if I get in trouble, and cross the road to avoid walking near groups of men. I don’t answer the door when I’m home alone. I barely sleep if my partner is out for the night, because I am aware of every little noise that might be someone breaking in to rob me or rape me or kill me. I am always aware of my safety, and I am often afraid. And it sucks. And I don’t need any man to tell me that I need to be more careful.
My mum often doesn’t walk to her exercise class, 10 minutes down the road, when it’s dark, because she doesn’t want anyone to see her in that routine. My sister obsessively locks all the doors in her car as soon as she gets in. Women live with a fear for their safety that is so ingrained, so ‘normal’, that we barely even notice it.
And still, we are in danger. Still, there is nothing that we can do to stop being attacked. Because as prepared as you might be, you can never anticipate when someone might come up on the street and rob you, or kill you, or rape you. The only way to be perfectly safe from an attacker like this is to never leave your home, or never be alone.
And this is where our society does women the biggest disservice of all – it forgets that we are so much more in danger in our homes. That we are so much more likely to be killed or raped by our partner than by anyone else in society.
This is what I submit: that many men, so matter how well meaning, no matter how empathetic, have not lived with this constant fear for their safety. That even though they, too, suffer violence, it is much more rare, and is much more likely to come from the hands of another man. So please do not tell us that we need to be more careful. It is not our responsibility. It is society’s responsibility to turn the conversation away from what women can do to be safer, and towards the fact that men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violence. When a woman is killed or attacked or raped, we need to NOT EVER ask what she did to deserve it – walking alone, drinking, wearing a short skirt, being in a ‘bad’ area of town, dating, partying, having sex – but instead, ask what we can change in our society to reverse the culture of entitlement that lets people think they have the right to be violent against others. We need to focus on the problem, not on the victim.
In our supposedly ‘equal’ society, sexism is in fact so entrenched that it is easy to miss it all together. Let us ask ourselves, if the genders were reversed so that a young man was killed by an older woman while walking alone, would anyone point out that he was wearing headphones? Would anyone say that men should not walk alone?
Let us not forget that for women in Australia, the greatest danger to our safety comes not from headphones, or walking, or our clothing, or our behaviour, but from men.