“If it came down to it and there’s no way out, how far would you go to protect yourself?” a male co-worker asked me the other night as we closed up the retail store we worked in. I didn’t need to think about my answer, I already knew what it was. Looking my co-worker straight in the eyes I answered “If they were trying hurt me, I would do whatever I needed to, without hesitation”.
In the waning hours of work, a group of us had been discussing the senseless murder of 22-year-old Melbourne comedian, Eurydice Dixon, at the hands of a violent man. Most of us live around the area she was killed, and we were deeply affected by what had happened.
As often happens with these kinds of discussions, the women in the group began comparing the different ways we keep ourselves safe when walking alone; Keys in your fist, lighters, scissors in a pocket, an empty glass bottle we can smash open. When I admitted that I sometimes carry a small pocket knife the men in the group looked utterly shocked.
They stressed to me that I better not get caught carrying it, that I could get in big trouble from the police. I know all of this of course. I know I can be fined or charged for carrying a pocket knife in the state of Victoria, but I explained that the possibility of getting caught wasn’t going to stop me from carrying a weapon for self-defence. When one of the male co-workers pointed out that I could really hurt someone with a knife, the women in our group looked to each other and sighed grimly, knowing all too well what he didn’t know.
I took a deep breath, thinking back to all the times I was alone in the dark, adrenaline coursing through my body as I prepared for the possibility of fighting for my life.
“What you don’t understand” I explained calmly, “is that myself and every other woman grapple with that question every time we feel unsafe. We’ve thought over every scenario and already decided how we would try to react. We’ve probably had these thoughts in our minds from as young as 12, when we were first warned about men. We don’t want to think this way, but it’s what we’ve been taught to protect ourselves.”
The women in the group nodded knowingly, eyes downcast. I could picture the past experiences that played in their minds. The men continued to look at me with a mixture of fear and disgust, as if I’d just said I’d kick a puppy across the street.
That night, on the short walk from my tram to my house, less than 800 meters from where Eurydice’s body was found on that freezing, June night, I was aggressively and vulgarly cat-called from a passing car, all the way home.
In the wake of yet another horrific death at the hands of a violent man, there has been a lot of discussion around women’s safety and men’s violence. There’s plenty of think pieces by women going around right now, discussing and explaining how they keep themselves safe in public, the lengths they have to go to make sure they’re safe.
I myself have taken self-defence classes, learnt martial arts and taken workshops on using everyday items as weapons. I carry my phone in my hand, ready to call emergency at a moment’s notice. I don’t wear headphones and I walk on busy, well-lit streets. I do all of this and I still feel unsafe. I do all of this and there’s still no guarantee it will help me if the worst was to happen.
I and many women take these steps and are even willing to risk prosecution for carrying an illegal weapon if it means we have a chance to protect ourselves. Being constantly told to look out for our own safety is a moot point, we already do that. We’ve been doing it for years.
It’s time now for Australia as a whole to combine their anger and despair and tackle this issue together, from all different angles. And the best place to start is at the core of the problem.
Firstly, men need to be provided with education from a young age, and continuously as they get older, to learn about and respect women’s rights, freedom and body autonomy. At home, in schools and in social circles, these conversations must be had. And they have to start now. There needs to be education around subjects of toxic masculinity and gender roles and how these ideals affect men’s views of themselves and women.
There needs to be greater punishments for acts of violence against women. The laws need to reflect the severity of these kinds of offences and we must have a zero tolerance policy for perpetrators. Our parole boards need to be tougher to keep violent men and repeat offenders off the streets.
The Australian government needs to put a greater focus on ending violence against women. More funding needs to be allocated to organisations supporting domestic violence victims and there needs to be greater funding for education and support.
Most importantly though, men need to talk to their mates about respecting women. They need to take a stand against any sort of sexist behaviour or rhetoric. They need to call out injustices and toxic narratives, not stay silent or ‘leave it for someone else to deal with’. Men need to stop making excuses for bad behaviour and stop passing off offensive comments as jokes or banter.
They need to step up and speak out.
Working on these issues will take time, effort and resources – but it’s essential in order to address and overcome violence against women. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t change overnight and we are still living in a world where it’s dangerous for a woman wherever she goes. No woman should feel she can’t leave her house after the sun goes down, take public transport or walk home from work.
It seems ridiculous that women are encouraged to take precautions or feel the need to arm themselves with possibly lethal weapons (keys, bottles) just to feel safe. We all need to address the issue at the heart of the problem. This is an issue everyone has to get behind if anything is going to change.
This is of course is a contentious issues with many facets and there is no one, right answer. I know there are a lot of discussions surrounding violence against women right now and I’m at risk of getting lost among the melee but it’s crucial we keep having these conversation. Too much discourse is better than silence.