By Siobhán Mulvey.
Don’t go out at night. Don’t walk home late. Don’t walk alone. Get a taxi. Text me when you make it home safe.
All warnings that have been issued to women for as long as we can remember – many times by those who have nothing but the best intentions. But what lies behind the words is rarely directly addressed. What are we afraid of? What is the ultimate bogeyman who hides behind street corners?
The consensus has always been that if you walk home alone, unimaginable, unspeakable harm will come to you. You will be powerless, utterly powerless, as to how to react. And (somehow) the fault will lie with you, you alone, who had the ludicrous idea to walk home alone.
In many ways, freedom relies on basic mobility. That you can go where you want, when you want, and without dependency. Instead, women have a societally imposed curfew. The night is not a welcoming world for us. We are not made to walk at dark and breathe in the quiet streets. We do not get to view our sunrises alone. You cannot possibly jog at 7am in winter. It is too dark outside.
Like most patriarchal undertones, it affects your subconscious understanding of yourself and your capabilities. It damages your self-esteem and rules out certain behaviours as non-negotiable. Walking home alone as a woman at 5am feels dangerous, feels strange, feels like the pushing of boundaries. Who taught us to fear our rights? And who taught us to fear the night?
In the 1970s, the women’s liberation movement in Leeds created a campaign titled ‘Reclaim the Night’. In response to the Yorkshire Ripper murders, the police ordered a curfew on women. The Ripper murdered 13 women and seriously assaulted seven others. His attacks on women, the stabbings that took place, were brutal, gruesome and without motivation. Some of his victims were sex workers, some were 16, some were mothers. He did not personally know his victims. The police took an entire decade to find the culprit, during which time their greatest advice was telling women to stay indoors. Just stay indoors, for an entire decade.
‘Reclaim the Night’ organised a series of marches to protest the curfew. Women knew then as women know now that we are not the problem. We are not the cause of violence – we are not the cause of our own deaths. Violence against women exists, regardless of our choices, regardless of whether we walk at night, regardless of any precautions. We cannot stay indoors for entire decades.
From a young age we are told we are responsible and if we are only careful enough, we will survive alright. Every single freedom that a woman has today was argued and fought for by the women before her. And not one right was won by women being careful.
Pinning the blame on a woman for walking alone, for being too drunk, and so on and so forth – we’ve heard it all before – means ignoring the actual source of the problem. It means never addressing the need for true societal change.
The attitude of ‘don’t walk alone’ reaffirms male guardianship values. For comparison, currently in Saudi Arabia women cannot apply for a passport, travel outside the country, study abroad, get married, leave prison or even exit a shelter for abuse victims without the permission of a male relative, such as their father, husband, brother or son. Essentially, the male guardianship system treats women as minors, from the moment of their birth to their death. You are vulnerable, eternally guarded, without any expectation of self-determination as you grow and age.
The Western world likes to boast that it is a million light years away from the male guardianship structure in place in Saudi Arabia. However, the ‘don’t walk alone’ fear plays on the same idea: it derives from the same strain of patriarchal thinking.
Each time a man offers to walk you home, under the guise of safety concerns, under the guise of providing comfort, the idea is one of male guardianship. Society states that a man cannot hurt you when you are walking accompanied with another man, and this is the only way to maintain night-time safety. It’s your only saving grace!
Again, this is an idea that needs to be thrown in the bin for what it is. It’s not cute or fluffy or normal, it’s fucking intolerable.
Eventually, we as a society need to decide what we accept as the norm. Is the norm a woman walking at night or a woman expecting violence at night? We need to question what we perceive as an acceptable or thinkably-okay concept.
Let’s start walking and standing and speaking in all the spaces once forbidden or feared. I want a world where women don’t spend their hard-earned money on a taxi for a journey a 10-minute walk away. Let’s reclaim the night, and seize our space.
Siobhán Mulvey is a contributing editor for Irish Broad Left.