I did not walk outside after dark on my own for the whole of last year. I was living in Johannesburg, South Africa, and walking alone as a woman meant being at risk. I was aware of this even during the day while walking my then one-year old daughter, whenever we found ourselves on a quiet path in the park. And even though I lived in an affluent neighbourhood, the elevated presence of electric fences and private security only served to emphasize the fact that you were not safe. Of course, this was not anything new. I was born and grew up in South Africa, a country where the rate of sexual violence against women and girls is among the highest world-wide. The impact of the fear of rape, in particular, was further imprinted on my mind when I worked on a reserach study some years ago, and heard all the women we interviewed echo the same phrase: I don’t walk; we can’t walk, you mustn’t walk… And then the words of one woman, asked about when she was most scared: I am walking down the road; two men approach.
Having lived in Europe for more than a decade (and having returned here now), I had, however, somewhat forgotten what it is like to not have this very basic freedom. I have always loved long, solitary walks - it is how I clear my head, hear my heart, make my way to finding my words. And the image of the flaneur, freely wandering the city streets, has always been an inspiration. But then, even here, where I did feel safer to roam, where I have gone out alone at night, I was confronted with the realization that the ideal flaneur was male and European; and I was decidedly not. As a woman of colour, the sexual harassment I experienced while walking around (from being followed to being propositioned) was also often tinged with racism.
Still, I have realized that this is a path on which I am not alone, that women everywhere are taking brave steps by taking to the streets and by speaking out, and that we have to continue to claim public space as a place where we have the right to exist and resist: we must stand; we can march; we will walk. I dream of a time when the sound of my footfall on a dark street will no longer carry an echo of panic, but the resounding beat of freedom.