I often walk home alone. Whether it’s after a university event or after relaxing with friends at a local pub, inevitably I approach the long walk home alone in the dark with a feeling of unease that never fully goes away.
My fear is one borne of the experiences of countless women in my life. The walk itself is a sensory overload. Hundreds of metres between streetlamps, maybe even beneath a broken one, I feel the darkness like a threat and walk with the fervour of a person being chased by something. Jagged key edges poking out from between the fingers of my right fist, my phone ready to dial emergency in my left. I’ve mapped the street for houses with small children whose parents would be most likely to wake up if I screamed.
Telling a boyfriend one time about my fear earned me a solid rebuff, because walking home alone in the dark isn’t that tough right? Was I scared of all the wandering cats and car noises? Did I seriously think I was in danger?
And that is what is so bone chillingly close to home for many women about the recent murder of Masa Vukotic. She was walking home through a park on her regular route, and only 500 metres from her house she was stabbed to death. She was on her way home from school at the same time many of us go for a jog or walk our pets, and her death is a reminder to all women that their fear is not imaginary.
What is imaginary however, is the cause of Masa’s death as anything other than a man with a knife.
In the way that we talk about assault we struggle to separate violence itself from its surroundings, whether that is a park, alleyway, club or even just a blanket concept like darkness. Whether it’s Little Red Riding Hood in the dark woods or Masa Vukotic in a park, we have a way of framing assault that places a firm portion of blame on the place rather itself rather than where it should rightly rest: with the wolf.
In a recent article for Daily Life, Clementine Ford also furiously took up this point, flying the banner for women’s right to feel safe in public. She argued that we treat public places like they are the attackers “as if danger simply falls out of the sky and snuffs out [women’s] lives, like a cartoon anvil or a piano or a house brought down in a tornado to land on a witch trespassing on land that was never hers to begin with”.
In acting as though it is these public spaces that women should fear and avoid, we are missing the key part of Masa’s death. Masa had the right to be in that park alone. She had the right to walk home, earphones in and confident in her own safety. She had the right to not be afraid of being in a public place that was designed to be used by her and countless other women.
Why should women fear or avoid parks? Parks don’t kill women. The danger that haunts women has a human face, which is why Detective Inspector Mike Hughes has been held to account for his recent commentary. In a public address Hughes stated “I suggest to people, particularly females, they shouldn’t be alone in parks”.
Many have rallied behind the homicide detective’s statement, with Auskar Surbakti, a news reporter for ABC, tweeting “To criticise Det. Insp. Mick Hughes is to criticise any mother or father who told their daughters to be careful after the murder.”
It is difficult in many ways to criticise a man who really, was only saying what he thought was necessary to prevent further grotesque crimes by a killer who was still at large. Detective Inspector Hughes, I am sure, said what he did with the best intentions of protecting other women in the immediate aftermath of a tragic event and out of care for the safety of all.
There is a significant difference, however, between encouraging public wariness and telling women to stay out of parks. Hughes statement shows a problematic way of thinking about the space women inhabit. It also redirects the source of danger from the actual killer onto a plot of land. In warning women to stay out of parks while alone, the Inspector created a villain all too familiar to the way we talk about violence against women.
It inadvertently suggests that the women who do walk through parks alone are the ones who dare to believe that they have the right to safely inhabit a public space. That being stabbed to death on her way home was something Masa should have foreseen and which could have been avoided if she had been more cautious.
This ignores all of the data we have on how cautious women already are. Research by the Australian Institute found that an overwhelming majority of women took actions to ensure their personal safety from a set list of safety measures in the last 12 months, with only 13% of women listing that they did not practice any of these measures. These included, for example: avoiding walking home at night, organising to text a friend when arriving home safely and carrying keys as a weapon. In comparison to this, it was found that 40% of men did not practice any of the listed safety measures. If this tells us anything, it is that women are well aware of the dangers they face and that these precautions have failed to protect women from abuse.
Detective Inspector Hughes’ statement made the assumption that women are not already cautious, and for some reason need to be reminded about the dangers we face in public places: that exercising further caution is the only way that the danger will disappear. It puts the responsibility for being attacked back on women when the real question we should be asking is not where was she, but who was he.
So now that the pepper spray and karate lessons have failed, what do we turn to next? To begin with, we can stop pointlessly villainising public spaces as a protective measure, because as long as we ignore the actual problem there is no protection, no matter where a woman is alone: park or otherwise.
We have to question statements like that of Detective Inspector Hughes. This isn’t “Gal-Quada out of control”, as one twitter user noted, or a situation where ‘feminazis’ highjacked a tragic incident to suit an agenda. Stopping violence against women is the agenda, and if our society stands a chance of doing so, it won’t be through victim blaming and telling women to be more cautious than they already are. The solution to dead women in parks isn’t to tell women to stay out of parks. Men kill women; it’s time we started questioning why.