It’s not that late, there’s still plenty of people around. I’ve done it loads of times before and never had any hassle. I need to walk off all the chips.
Those were my thoughts before deciding to walk home alone after a Friday evening out. It was 12.40 and the others were getting pumped to sing their hearts out at the Noraebang (karaoke room), but I was feeling exhausted after a hard week at work so I decided to call it a night.
Outside the Lotte Department Store I saw a stall selling hot Bungeoppang, small fish-shaped pastries filled with sweet red beans. I always find it hard to walk past a Bungeoppang stall and that night was no exception. I asked the vendor for three. ‘Not two, or four, but three!’ he said, and I laughed.
I walked down the stairs of Seomyeon underground shopping centre to cross to the other side of the road. Outside the Lotte food hall, during the day filled with people buying expensive foods from far away places, homeless people were lying on benches with coats draped over them. Nobody said anything to me or asked me for money.
I thought about easy it must be to become destitute in South Korea, a country where the family, rather than the state, is seen as the main unit responsible for taking care of people. Despite a plethora of social problems and a lot of poverty, South Korea is extremely safe. I had never had any reason to fear for my personal safety or property here. It’s not that I was naive enough to believe there are no criminals here, but I thought they were so few and far between that I was statistically unlikely to encounter any.
A little later I was scolding myself for not thinking of offering the homeless people some of my Bungeoppang when a very small and skinny man of around 19 or 20 walked past me in the opposite direction. He looked at me and said ‘Wow’ as he passed. I avoided his eyes and walked on. A little later I turned my head. The man had stopped and was standing there, looking at me. He looked like he was thinking, pondering a decision. I walked faster, then turned my head again. Now he had changed direction and was following me.
I desperately looked out for a taxi with a light on, but all of them were dark. I felt jealous of the people inside them. Soon he was walking beside me, spitting on the ground and saying things in Korean that I couldn’t understand. But I did understand when he called me ‘noona’ (older sister), and asked me where I live. I knew then that I had to lose him somehow. I picked up my pace, and so did he. I told him to go away, but he didn’t.
I ran through the options in my mind. I was afraid to take out my phone in case he grabbed it. There were other people walking nearby, maybe I could ask one of them for help. But how could I explain what was happening, and what could they do? I could go into the police station near my apartment, but what if he tried something when he realised where I was going? I could kick him in the nuts and run away, but how could I justify that when he hadn’t actually touched me, and what if that provoked him to chase after and attack me?
Then I saw a 24 hour GS25 convenience store and my decision was made. I said ‘Annyonghegasayo’ (goodbye) and bolted inside. But the man stayed there, waiting for me to come out. I started trying to explain the situation to the shop assistant, in a mixture of broken Korean and English, but felt so overwhelmed and so frustrated with my inability to communicate that I burst into tears. The shop assistant went outside and told the man to go away, but he refused. So he locked up the shop and walked me home, the man lurking behind us for most of the way, but at a distance. We chatted a little and he told me his name and that he was an accounting student at one of the nearby universities. I thanked him and said good night.
When I told my friends what happened, most of them asked if the shop assistant walked me all the way to my apartment building. I told them no, I told him he could go when we got to the corner because I couldn’t see the other man anymore. They were relieved that neither man found out where I live. I realised then that this is a world where many women feel compelled to treat every man they don’t know, even a random student working at a convenience store, as a potential predator.
I used to have a different attitude: I didn’t really give a shit. Like all women, I have been exposed to plenty of victim-centric police statements, inventions made to profit from women’s fear of men, and preachy advice from well-meaning people. But I still never felt obliged to watch by back. I’ve never owned pepper spray or learned any self defence techniques and, yes, I have walked home alone at night many times as long as it wasn’t too late. I thought that telling women to spend money or alter their behaviour to avoid hassle or worse from men comes from the perspective of victim blaming. Every time I was lectured about what I should and shouldn’t do I thought ‘I’m only a woman trying to go about my life, why are you talking to me instead of all the men who think it’s okay to do those things to women?’
But my experience that night challenged what I had always felt. I encountered a man who thought that he had a had a right to follow and harass me, regardless of how it made me feel. I don’t know what else he felt entitled to do, fortunately I didn’t have to find out – but only because I asked another man for help. I berated myself for never having devoted any time to thinking about or preparing for this kind of situation. I realised that I had been making decisions based on what I should be free to do, rather than the reality.
But what exactly is the reality? Some say there will always be violent men who prey on women, and focusing on perpetrators rather than victims won’t change a thing. I can’t agree with this because it assumes that violent men are anomalous monsters, when the reality is that most are normal guys living in a misogynistic society. And most victims are their girlfriends and wives – not women walking alone on city streets at night. Tom Meagher, whose wife Jill Meagher was murdered in Australia two years ago, summed it up well in his blog post The Danger of the Monster Myth:
…violent men are socialised by the ingrained sexism and entrenched masculinity that permeates everything from our daily interactions all the way up to our highest institutions.
Meagher is an ambassador for The White Ribbon Campaign, a global organisation devoted to ensuring men take responsibility for reducing violence against women. The organisations aims to ‘… change the attitudes and behaviours that lead to and perpetuate men’s violence against women, by engaging boys and men to lead social change, and to achieve gender equality.’
This makes so much more sense than telling women what to do. But that’s not to say that safety advice for women is wrong, at least in principle. The problem is that it usually takes the form of imposing codes of behaviour and dress on women, while ignoring important facts:
- Usually violence against women is perpetrated by the ‘ordinary’ men in our families, peer groups and places of work. We need to work to unravel the misogyny that can legitimise violent behaviour in the eyes of some men. This will make women safer at home with their partners, and everywhere else they go.
- Women are not obliged to do anything just because someone tells us it’s for our own benefit. We are free to make our own decisions about how to live our lives. Regardless of how we dress, what we say, where we go and what we do, we are never to blame for a man’s violence.
- Even though societal factors influence the way men think about women, violence is still a choice and anybody who makes that choice deserves to be punished.
Lately in public discourse, it seems everybody is advocating for either of two approaches: Help women to protect themselves from violent men, or educate men so they don’t become violent. I used to think these ideas were so conflicted that they had to be mutually exclusive. But that changed when I was minding my own business and became the target of a man who thought my will was less than his just because I’m a woman.
Of course men need to call each other out when they see disrespectful attitudes and behaviour towards women, and to contest the notion that to be a man is to exert power over women. That’s the proper way to make the world a safer place for women. But in the meantime, I will be watching my back a little bit more than I did before.
The day after my ordeal I bought some nice chocolates, the kind you can’t buy at GS25, and a card. I brought them to the same shop, intending to say thank you to the assistant who helped me. His shift hadn’t yet started, but I gave them to his colleague to pass on. Most men are kind and will do the right thing by women. Recognising those men is another way to encourage a culture of respect for women.