In the dark

Date

Sian Prior

"No one can see how tough I am. It's too dark."

"No one can see how tough I am. It's too dark." Photo: Getty Images

We've all been there. Walking down a dark laneway at night, our senses suddenly hyper-acute, checking for danger. Listening behind us for footsteps breaking into a run. Listening ahead for footsteps falling silent. Using our ears because our eyes don't work so well in the dark.

This has been my experience night after night as I walk home from my local train station – when you're a theatre critic, night work is inevitable. Most of the time I feel lucky to be living only a 10-minute stroll to the train. And yet, night after night, I've had to steel myself to enter the long dark alley between the station and the end of my street.

While most assaults on women occur in the home, we've all seen CC-TV images of women being pursued down the street. These are the images that haunt us when we're out walking late at night with shadowy figures following close behind, our heart racing, our stride quickening. All women know this fear deep in their guts, even tall, strong, middle-aged, flat-heeled ones like me.

"Flat-heeled!" I hear you say.

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"What's that got to do with anything?" We feminists have spent decades trying to persuade each other that we can – and should – wear whatever we like out there. That no one has the right to curb our impulses when we're flicking through a wardrobe. That we shouldn't have to dress conservatively to feel safe on the streets. And we're right about that.

Still, it makes me anxious to see young women wearing heels so high that running would be impossible.

I keep an eye on those young women as they walk ahead of me into the dark alley outside the train station, priming myself in case they need help. I wear flat heels when I'm planning to use that alley to get home after a night at the theatre. Just in case I have to run.

When I was a teenager, men would sometimes follow me home from the train station. On a couple of occasions these men caught up to me, unzipped themselves and masturbated in front of me. One night on a dark platform my girlfriend and I were surrounded by a group of young men who began tugging at our clothes. That night we had to run.

When I was in my early 20s I did a course in self-defence for women. "Stand tall and shout at them," we were told. "If that doesn't work, try poking them in the eyes or kneeing them in the crotch. They won't expect you to be aggressive." Sometimes, in that station laneway, I ball my fists as I'm walking, hoping I'll look tough. But no one can see how tough I am. It's too dark.

Six months ago, my fear prompted me to phone the local council to ask if they could install some lights in the laneway. The initial response was promising. There would be an inspection and someone would get back to me. The follow-up phone call was less promising. There was no budget for this kind of thing and besides, the council employee told me, there was plenty of light down there on the night of his inspection.

"What was the moon like that evening?" I enquired. With a full moon, it's not quite so gloomy in that alley.

"Oh, there's always moonlight," he replied cheerily.

Now I'm no scientist, but I'm pretty sure that for half of every month the moon provides about as much illumination as a candle in a cathedral - or less. It took all my willpower not to say "astronomy fail" out loud. Instead, I reminded him there had recently been a number of night-time attacks on women in neighbouring suburbs. Some of those women never made it home. He agreed to "have a closer look" at the lighting question.

A few months ago there was another phone call. Somehow they'd found money in the budget and solar-powered lights would be installed in the alley. Mr Moonlight and I congratulated each other on a job well done.

It's a small victory but to me it feels huge. I'm sick to death of feeling afraid when I walk the streets alone at night. I'm sick of my own ambivalent feelings about what clothing women should wear to feel safe. I'm sick of having to convince myself that violence against women is not an inevitable part of the human condition.

Thirty years ago, I marched in Reclaim the Night rallies. Back then I believed mass political protest would lead to permanent social change. These days, my ambitions are more modest. I'm going to try to reclaim the night one solar light at a time. You might want to join me. And if anyone tells you that women should take responsibility for the violence visited upon them, you could try saying, "Yeah, you're right, and of course there's always moonlight."