Moving to a new city, making new friends and adjusting to life at University is a chaotic journey to say the least. For many of us starting at the ANU in 2016, it’s our first proper taste of independence, and boy is it sweet. But with that independence comes the harsh realisation of being a woman on campus – the harsh realisation that I am never safe.
Of course I already know this. All women know this. It’s something that has been routinely embedded into our consciousness. “Don’t talk to strangers,” “stay as a group when you go to the toilet”, and “never walk alone.” For girls, these lessons are taught early; they aren’t just warnings – they’re the key to survival. It still, however, is a frightening reminder of what being a woman on campus really means: for a split second, your safety depends upon everything you’ve been taught. For me, this split second was spent locked up in a toilet in Coombs, scrambling for the ANU OK app as a man scuffled through the women’s bathroom.
Like everybody else, I was excited for my first Thursday night out with friends. We’d made plans to go see the ANU film society’s screening of “In the Heart of the Sea” and go into the city later that night. With a group of seven others, I’d felt safe while watching the screening. I’d already had some of my first law lectures in Coombs that week and had been comfortable enough with the building. But what I’d hoped would be a fun night out quickly descended into terror.
During the film I’d left for the bathroom, knowing my friends were only a few metres away. As I entered the bathroom, a man had been loitering outside the door. Nothing to worry about though right? I was having fun, I was at my dream university – I was safe. But only seconds after entering the bathroom, this same man had followed me in. I was locked up in a bathroom stall, listening to him walk around each cubicle, not knowing what to do. What was going to happen? My chest was tightening as I pictured the horrifying reality of what could have happened.
Luckily, he left. I stayed in the bathroom for another 10 minutes before I built up the courage to go outside and ring security. I repeatedly apologised to security staff for over exaggerating, feeling the need to pardon myself for inconveniencing them. After being followed into a toilet by a strange man, fearing for my life, I had felt guilty after calling people whose actual job it was to help.
In hindsight, even to myself, it sounds stupid to feel guilty. And it is stupid to feel guilty – I have the right to ring to security when my safety is threatened. But this is how young women have been conditioned within our society. No matter where we are – a park, a festival or Australia’s top university – the misogyny the permeates our community forces us to blame ourselves for the actions of others.
Australia’s cultural nightmare of victim blaming and violence against women has its seeds in every public space, on every campus. Everyday thousands of women live in perpetual fear of going for their morning runs or walking back alone from evening lectures. Many men rob us off our right to simply exist in public spaces, whether that be via catcalling, stalking or assault.
Only last week the ANU Women’s Department hosted a screening of The Hunting Ground, a US documentary following the journey of a number of women who have been sexually assaulted on US University campuses. Providing startling insight into US rape culture, the screening shared stark similarities with the situation faced by women on campus in Australia. Prefacing the documentary was Vice-Chancellor Schmidt, who again reaffirmed his commitment to ensuring women can lead their lives at the ANU without being subject to violence.
I’m optimistic that Vice-Chancellor Schmidt is genuine when he says he is determined to increase momentum and help make our campus a safe place for everyone. But that isn’t an easy task. No commencement address or phone app will protect women from this systemic problem. What Vice-Chancellor Schmidt instead needs to be doing is actively challenging misogyny and gender inequality on campus, in the media and even within our own government. Schmidt needs to make it clear that the ANU will not stand for violence against women. Until then we need to call our campuses for what they are – hunting grounds.