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Being afraid to walk alone at night

A stranger's tap on the shoulder stirs up mixed feelings and reactions

I was weaving through the crowds at Clarke Quay about a fortnight ago on a Saturday night on my way to the MRT station after catching a dance performance in the area. I had plugged in my earphones to insulate myself from the lack of personal space when I heard someone calling, "Hey! Hey!" and tapping me on the shoulder.

I turned around. Standing there was a man about my age, looking as out of place as I did in a sea of people dressed to go out on the town.

"Yes?" I asked.

"This - this is really random," he said, eyes widening, "but I saw you walk past and - and you looked really nice. And I knew I would regret it if I didn't come up and... "

My brain caught up with myself at this point as I flushed a deep purple.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

"Thank you so much," I said, or perhaps I apologised, I was so flustered at that point - "but I'm married."

Which, while true, I realised on hindsight could have been perceived as a rather flippant rejection of an earnest, genuine request. I kicked myself in the proverbial face as I hurried away and Mr Earnest Gentleman, as we shall call him, said dolefully: "Oh... enjoy your married life."

That, dear reader, was the first time I had ever been "picked up" in my life. I've always been the nerdy, bookish and awkward girl (who eventually married another nerdy, bookish and endearingly awkward man) and getting "picked up" was something that happened to other shinier, savvier people.

"That was so brave of him," one of my friends said, before adding "Well, at least he didn't try to stalk you all the way to the station."

My mother was tickled by the situation, then told me later: "But as your mother, I still worry about these things."

I was relieved that Mr Earnest Gentleman remained as such - taking rejection in his stride and not taking it out on me.

But I began to wonder about these qualifiers that my mother and friend had included in our conversations. A thankfulness that I hadn't been the victim of sexual violence or harassment, as if that was the basic expectation of what might happen if I had turned someone down. How has that expectation become so internalised, in a country where many are proud to say that a woman can walk the streets alone, late at night and not fear for her life?

But I do.

I've been thinking about what the writer Margaret Atwood said: "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them."

In Singapore? You may scoff. But it happens and more often than we know.

After a rather nasty incident a few years ago that resulted in police action, I still feel a slight prickle of fear when walking home alone at night in Singapore. My experience wasn't a particularly violent assault, but it was a shocking one and scars have a way of making themselves felt in different places and at unexpected times. Why should anyone be afraid to walk down a well-lit path in Singapore? I asked myself. But I am.

I remember talking to a group of female friends about what had happened and many of them nodded their heads in assent. Oh, one said, so-and-so was groped on the train and when she tried to run after him, he dodged out of the cabin, slipped through the packed platform and entered another just as the doors shut and the train left.

There were many other similar stories. I was horrified and saddened that my story was perfectly unremarkable and that while there are women who have experienced greater violence than I have, or less, they experienced it all the same, in a society the world would unanimously deem very safe.

As I was writing this article, I suddenly became blindingly afraid of what the response might be like. I remember writing a column about immigration and xenophobia a couple of years ago, completely unrelated to sexual violence or rape culture, and someone commented online, anonymously, that my "editors" ought to "gang rape" me for implying that some Singaporeans were xenophobic.

Words can be remarkably affecting when laced with such vulgar sexual intention and it is difficult to walk boldly through a world where a woman being gang raped, whether on paper or in person, is cheered on by a bevy of other anonymous commenters.

There are those, both male and female, who suggest that a woman is "asking for it" by dressing a certain way. Many of the unpleasant encounters I've heard about have happened when the woman is dressed in plain officewear, wearing absolutely nothing "provocative" or "revealing". Should all women's bodies be at fault when it comes to sexual violence? Of course not.

Then there are others who shut women down online using shockingly violent language involving sexual acts or abusive name-calling, tacitly endorsing that it's okay to reduce women to sex objects.

This creates a culture of fear of repercussions both online and offline and as much as Singapore is a generally safe place for men and women, that clutch of fear still lurks unseen at every dark corner I turn, whether on the street or on the Internet. A fear that regardless of what I am wearing or what I am saying, I can be a target of sexual violence.

But I am reminded by American columnist Emma Lindsay, who wrote a powerful, moving essay about rape and redemption, that "the fact that it's not unusual doesn't mean it's not wrong".

So I am assured by those such as Mr Earnest Gentleman. For my friends' partners and husbands, who call out their male friends when they are being misogynistic and don't stand for casual misogyny. For the parents who bring up their children to be respectful of everyone, regardless of gender.

And also for my husband.

In the middle of a large and heated Facebook discussion about sexual violence a few years ago, where people from all sides were being defensive about their "responsibilities" as men and women, blame-shifting and defining what was kosher when it came to the topic, he posted on my wall: "It's sad how so many men say misogynistic things and are completely oblivious about them - and think that they're the ones being threatened."

A female friend of mine posted underneath: "10 points to Corrie's husband!"

He continued: "I do it too. I was just thinking about all the times where I've been annoying to people, thinking that I'm just 'making an argument', unaware of the fact that I'm not just being offensive and contrarian but also making the other person actually feel uncomfortable or threatened. I was just pulling the rest of dude-kind in to be complicit in my behaviour. I'm very thankful that you're marrying me, honey."

"500 points to Corrie's husband!!!"

I suppose it goes without saying that I'm very thankful I married him too.

And if only everyone felt and behaved the way he did, I would walk home alone every night, head held high, unafraid of the tap on my shoulder.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 06, 2016, with the headline 'Being afraid to walk alone at night'. Print Edition | Subscribe