Safe spaces

By ESTELLE ROBERTS

 

Last night walking into a friend’s driveway we were stopped by a neighbor who had just scared off a man halfway through breaking into her house. His decision to intervene had spared us the possible consequences of walking into a house and surprising a thief. For whatever reasons, whether he’s a nosy neighbor or simply has a sense of social responsibility, he had prevented a potentially dangerous encounter.

I have been thinking a lot on safety and particularly the tenuous safety of women. Recently I (a female) travelled (alone) through southern Morocco, enjoying its beautifully rugged and prickly coastlines where the sun sinks itself into the Atlantic Ocean. But I also had some experiences that made me want to get on the next plane out of there. The constant staring and sleazy hassle made for some very crisped nerves that often inhibited my ability to really engage and appreciate the place.

I returned to Australia with a relief that is difficult to describe. I am not a patriotic type but I have to say I appreciate how relatively safe this place felt, how freely I could walk down the street, sit in a café and go about my day.

As a western woman I was a great curiosity for men in the small towns I visited, towns with high unemployment, little education and preconceived ideas about western women, stereotypes gleaned from MTV and Hollywood. It was an uncomfortable cultural shock for no other reason than the complete lack of respect that my gender afforded me.  I felt extremely vulnerable and often times afraid for my safety.

I didn’t change my ticket, not even after the unnerving experience of being followed and hassled by a man in car as I walked along the footpath one afternoon. I am too stubborn and indignant or perhaps naïve to accept that I cannot walk down a street safely, free from intimidation because of an arbitrarily assigned gender.

On returning to Alice Springs I learnt that a women had been raped and bashed in town just round the corner from where I used to work, leaving a party that I too would have probably attended. It was horribly sobering to realize that the relief I felt returning to my familiar environment was misplaced if I thought I was any safer here than anywhere else.

From when we are little girls we are watched and sexualized and as a woman I navigate a sexist status quo that constantly objectifies me. How can sex discrimination supposedly be a distant memory when women can feel unsafe and can be raped and abused as a result of their gender?

I went to a party the other night where the door policy clearly stated that the venue was a safe space for sexual diversity and that any body infringing on the right to that respect would be asked to leave. Someone, who I am proud to say is my friend, deftly escorted a person who had violated that right to the door where they were made to leave by the bouncer.

I read a line somewhere, something like this: the road to social justice relies on people making small decisions every day to become involved in the lives of people around them. Those small decisions can have powerful consequences. I like the ring of this and I guess what I’ve been thinking about is that for safe places to exist we must actively define our spaces with respect and practice our social responsibility by looking out for each other.

Pictured above: Sunset off Morocco’s Atlantic coastline – beautiful, but hard to appreciate when you’re being hassled by local men with their stereotyped ideas of western women. Returning to Alice was a relief … at first.

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