A bomb goes off. A machine gun is fired into a crowd. Hostages are held and killed in a café siege. When an act of terrorism occurs, the message from authorities after the dust has settled is loud and clear – do not change the way you live, do not give into fear. That way the terrorists will have won.
However, when an act of violence occurs against women, the message is different. Simply by existing in the physical environment, we put ourselves at risk. We must curb our behaviour. Stay indoors. Be invisible. It is the only way to be safe.
In Melbourne the murder of Doncaster schoolgirl Masa Vukotic, 17, has caused the media and the public to question whether women can ever exist safely in society.
On Tuesday March 17, Masa left her home at 6.45 pm for her regular evening stroll. She was stabbed to death less than a kilometre from where she lived, in a middle class suburban Melbourne suburb.
As reported in The Age (March 20), Homicide squad chief Detective Inspector Mick Hughes told ABC Radio National that people ‘particularly women’ shouldn’t be alone in parks. Social media was quick to respond. Female commentators were rightly outraged.
Melbourne radio presenter Neil Mitchell jumped to his defence, saying that Inspector Hughes "was saying the bleeding obvious".
"It was a fair and reasonable thing to say - it's not nice, it's very sad, but we all have to be increasingly cautious.”
So, Neil Mitchell – is it fair and reasonable to say that women perhaps shouldn’t be alone anywhere? And how exactly do we prevent that from happening? When I was only a year or two older than Masa Vukotic, I caught a train into university just after morning peak hour. Busy reading my lecture notes, I didn’t notice that the train carriage suddenly emptied, leaving me alone with a man. It was only when I glanced up to check how close the train was to the city that I saw the man was blatantly masturbating and leering at me.
This was the era before iPods, so I didn’t have earphones in but I was reading. Am I to blame for not noticing what was happening until it was too late? And what could I have done? I thought of jumping off at the next stop, but I didn’t know the suburb, and the approaching platform was deserted, and if I got off, would the man have followed? Let me tell you what I felt – paralysed by fear. And this was not a man who was stabbing me to death. And this was at 10 am in the morning, on a weekday. I was going to university, not a nightclub, and it was winter in Melbourne, I was not dressed provocatively, I was dressed for warmth.
I was simply, like other women who have been randomly killed and attacked, suddenly within some person’s radar. Exactly like the hostages in the Sydney Lindt Café siege last December, simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As noted by Melissa Davey in The Guardian Australia, “When someone [like Hughes] with considerable influence and power chooses to perpetuate myths about what puts women in danger and who is to blame for that, their status means people are listening.”
Melissa Davey called on Inspector Hughes to revoke his remarks. But the public are concerned. On March 20 The Age published interviews with locals who agreed they were concerned about their children’s safety – daughters in particular. One resident revealed he would now be driving his 21 year old daughter to and from university each day. Another young woman said the attack had installed a deep sense of fear and was causing her to skip late university lectures so she wouldn’t be on the streets after dark.
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