Life

When the Only Way to Feel Safe Walking at Night Is to Hide the Fact You're a Woman

I like to take long walks at night. But in Jakarta, that's a dangerous thing to like.
July 3, 2018, 8:08am
Photo collage by Dicho Rivan

Growing up a girl in Indonesia means being constantly told what you should never do. Girls shouldn't spend too much time on their education. They really shouldn't be all that mean or opinionated. And when it comes to the night, the advice is clear: the night is no place for a woman. Neither is walking around alone, an idea that most people see as an act so dangerous that it borders on foolishness. So, of course, my habit of taking long late-night walks wouldn't exactly get a ringing endorsement from anyone. But I do it anyway.

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Why? In many ways walking by yourself, especially after dark when the city is quieter and traffic less dense, is therapeutic. It's a way to reclaim a bit of your center when you're on the verge of breaking down and, for me, it works way better than any therapist I've ever spoke to.

But it's also deeply frustrating, because right there, right in the middle of my self care, I am consistently confronted with the hard realities of being a woman in a country where street harassment, sexual assault, and violent crime are very real concerns for any woman who chooses to walk around the streets alone.

Walking at all in this city is a really unpopular idea. Indonesians walk less than any other nation on Earth, according to a study released by the Stanford University, in the United States, last year. It's not just that we're a nation that hates to walk. Decisions like that don't happen in a vacuum. The country's infrastructure issues, lack of real traffic rules, missing sidewalks, open sewers, and general pollution make walking around pretty much unbearable.

But for women, the risk of being harassed, or worse, is concern number one. It's a hard issue to really put into context with data, because data is often so hard to come by. One list, somewhat erroneously, ranked Jakarta as one of the least-safe cities in the world.

Last week, I was walking home after seeing the post-punk band Protomartyr play a show and trying to clear my head. It was around midnight and my home in Mampang is about six kilometers from Rossi, the venue in Fatmawati. It's not an insanely far walk, but it's still a walk down Antasari, a long, straight, and dangerous road. It's the kind of road that's favored by motorbike gangs and in a city where no one walks, being the lone woman trekking down the street late at night sort of make you a target.

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I wasn't afraid at the time because I was going through some things and focused on those. I was wandering home and thinking a lot, but then, three different times, I was shaken back to reality by men who stopped to try to convince me to get on their bikes.

"Hey girl! Get on my bike! Come home with me!" they said.

I shot back, "Do you think I need you to give me a ride? Fuck off!" and kept going. But realizing that this wasn't exactly safe, I pulled my black jacket up over my head, a wardrobe change that made me look androgynous and safer from harassment. Later, I walked past a group of men loitering on the sidewalk and not one of them said a thing. Instead they stared at me like I was a ghost or something. That's what Indonesian horror movies tell us anyway, women who break the rules end up as ghosts.

In the end, my walk didn't end up at home. I found a woman who was shocked and injured after being hit by a motorbike gang. She had a bleeding scrape on her forehead, bruises, and torn jeans. She told me that she could barely even remember what happened. I accompanied her to the hospital to make sure she received treatment.

“These men were trying to take my bag, but they failed that’s why they kicked my motorbike,” she told me as she tried to fix her hijab and put her glasses back on.

It's another sign that it has nothing to do with what you wear. People tell women in Indonesia that they're out there "asking for it," if the don't dress conservatively. But here was this woman in a hijab who suffered far worse treatment than myself.

But still, my attempt to look more like a man seemed to offer some level of protection. It got me wondering, are we supposed to deny our femininity in public just to feel safe? Are men the only ones free to walk around the city without fear?

I felt like my trick, looking more like a man to feel safer, only perpetuated the sexist idea that a woman in Indonesia who wants to do something society tells her not to do is more "masculine," than her peers. It's almost like I'm supporting the whole idea that what a woman wears is the reason she gets harassed on the streets (or in public transit, or online, or anywhere really).

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This isn't just an idea in Indonesia. Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology and gender studies and the author of Guyland: the Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, wrote that girls who act "boyish," are rewarded with upward mobility, while boys who act feminine are often dragged down the social ladder.

“Girls who act like boys are moving up the social ladder," he told CNN. "Boys who are acting like anything but masculine are moving down and risk losing their status."

So while I can enjoy the fact that dressing more androgynous is somehow beneficial, I also wonder if I am a traitor to myself. It makes so much more sense to me to live in a world where being a woman is a powerful thing; a world where women don't need to camouflage their genders just so they can walk around at night. I don't want to disappear. I want to be seen.

It reminds me of every interview I've done with the kinds of men who symbolize "toxic hyper-masculinity," here in Indonesia. In these interviews with looters, preman, or men implicated in mob violence, I always lit a cigarette in an attempt to blend-in. Why do I need to pretend to be someone else to feel safe?

But I guess until the day genders (and sexualities) are truly seen as equals in Indonesia, I'll keep using cigarettes and "masculine" jackets as a protective barrier. Still, as I discussed this idea with a friend, she asked, "How much longer are we going to have to hide ourselves behind jackets and cigarette smoke?" I wish I had an answer.