April 15, 2011
“Are you sure that’s safe?” were the first words out of my boyfriend’s mouth upon hearing that I’d been running around my local park at night. He was visualizing a lonely expanse of dark bushes with lurking axe murderers, illicit sexual activity, and drug peddlers. Little did he know that my company mostly included power-walking elderly, roller-blading children, and young women looking for some nature on their way home from work.
Yet his reaction is not unusual, nor unexpected. I can imagine if I were to announce my desire to jog around the New Haven Green by myself at nine o’clock at night, most people in my life would advise me against it. Having been brought up taking myself to and from school in London, I know the rules for women at night: don’t walk alone, don’t walk in unlit areas (like parks and alleyways), walk where there are lots of people (busy streets). If you violated these rules, you could expect to meet a mugger, or most likely a rapist, lurking and ready to pounce. As seen from conversations with my friends at home and at Yale, this has created a culture where rape is often at the forefront of many women’s minds when walking around alone at night; they have been told the rules so often that they usually expect the worst.
This omnipresent threat of rape in women’s consciousness often surprises my male friends, as it is not usually something they have been taught to worry about for themselves. Yet they know that often they will be asked to walk a female friend home and then continue on home themselves, alone, as a lone man is perceived to be at less risk than a lone woman. Or it might not even be less risk – the statistics for mugging usually show young men are most at risk – just that as women have the special threat of rape, the consequences for men are less serious.
I am not arguing against women using common sense in cities at night, but what being in Taipei has highlighted for me is that in the West, the idea of the woman in danger at night is self-reinforcing. Because parks and quiet streets are perceived as dangerous, they end up only being populated by dangerous characters; because women are trained not to go out alone at night, the streets are full of men.
Taipei is a very safe city, although probably not much safer than Yale’s campus. The biggest difference is that the residents, unlike the Yale population of New Haven, perceive it as safe. A woman here would not think twice before walking home by herself at three in the morning, and consequently if you’re on the street at three in the morning you’ll see a lot of lone women. Nobody looks at me worryingly or reprovingly when I announce I’m going running at night, and without that social pressure I’m likely to encounter a lot more nighttime runners.
Taiwan’s nighttime culture definitely helps. Taipei runs 24 hours; when I’ve asked female friends why they’re not worried about being out at any hour of the night, they always say it’s because they know if there was ever a problem, there would be a 24-hour convenience store on the block they could run into. Night markets that run until one in the morning are common for dinner, and used at those late hours not just by students, but by parents who work long hours. When these same parents want time with their children, they take them to the park after they get home in the evening; an active culture for families in the late evening helps save the night from its stigma of danger.
This difference in nighttime culture is important to me personally, as after an adolescence of comfortably sauntering around cities of the world alone at night, I finally got mugged a couple times when out late in Kumasi slums. On one occasion I was knocked to the ground, and the feeling of vulnerability from losing a struggle against that mugger, as well as the fact that when I yelled there was nobody to hear me, haunted me wherever I was on dark deserted streets afterwards. Scary stories from childhood street-smart classes took on a whole new meaning once I knew what it felt like to be physically overpowered by a stranger.
I am grateful to the culture here in Taipei for helping me find the courage to once again have an independent existence at night. It has cured my fear of the dark; what I have come to realize is that it is not the absence of light that keeps me from venturing out alone, it’s the lack of women, children, and old people on the street. We are all kept inside by the same fear of the night, a fear reinforced when visual triggers for a safe area, such as families out together, are completely absent. Our collective fear helps make the streets unsafe; if I am a lone woman on the street, I am both more likely to be afraid and more likely to be targeted. I am excited to be in a culture that operates under different norms; we shall see how I readjust when returned to New Haven.
Paulina Arnold is a junior at Yale College. She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.