By Ivana Bilić and Alba Ajdarevikj
Is it really that dangerous to walk alone at night? What creates the perception of danger? Is fear rooted in our bodies or constructed by prejudices and habits?
During the ten days of FemArt Festival, the Italian artist Valentina Medda and the eleven women participants worked on the project Cities by Night, a participatory project dealing with women’s perception of danger in the urban environment. Then, on June 22 and 23, a broader audience had the opportunity to follow the footsteps of local women through the city, digging into their fears and perceptions of danger. Men were also welcome to walk with women to experience the walks accompanied by pre-recorded tracks that were testimonies from other women and previous workshops.
The eleven participant women explored areas of the city that they chose, building a walk that began near the National Theater of Kosovo and ended at the point their perception of fear increased. For three days in a row they had the opportunity to walk the paths they have chosen, most of them challenging themselves to walk the paths that they consider the most dangerous/scary for them. By doing so, each of them redefined the topography of the city, by reassigning its borders based on their unconscious biases resulting from their cultural background, economic status, beliefs, and other prejudices. However, the workshop leader, Valentina Medda, emphasized that it is significant to understand that the project’s purpose is not to test the safety of streets, rather, to show how safe these women feel, what fear they feel, and why they feel such fear.
Impressions of Participants
Before the project opened to the audience, women gathered together in the Dodona Theater to exchange their experiences collected during their explorations and rehearsals. One of the women realized that she would always plan which route to take, opting for streets with supermarkets, where there are lights and people around. Another girl said that some streets were pretty scary and she would clench up keys in her hand to be prepared. They discussed among themselves about all the things women have to think about only while getting back home at night. This fear is a consequence of their previous bad experiences or some stories that they have heard from other people. Further, this fear is perceived differently from person to person, and as one of the women mentioned: “something that seems scary or frightening to me, does not seem the same to someone else”.
Moreover, the knowledge and familiarity that a woman or any person has with their city or the path in which they walk has a great impact on this fear. The more a person frequents an area or street, the less danger and fear they feel, even if that part of the city is the most dangerous place in the world. During their explorations in these unfamiliar areas, initially the women felt anxious and uncomfortable walking on their own. However, during the last walk they took, all of these dangers were alleviated, but not completely eradicated. Nonetheless, many of these women stated that during this activity they have become bolder and stronger, pushing their boundaries and the boundaries of the city where they live. One of the women even added that during the exercises, she had pushed her boundary more every day, in order to strengthen herself. Now, these women are ready to lead other people and share their feelings with the public.
Impressions of the Audience
The answer a person from the audience gave when asked how she liked the performance was: “I did not like it. The experience was scary for me having to consider the audio I had to listen to while walking unknown and dark routes, and I kept thinking that there’s ignorance among men which should be addressed, and my experiencing cities by night didn’t contribute to such a result; it only doubled the fear.” Some of the audience members communicated that during their guided walk they felt uncomfortable, in the sense that they found it unsettling to just walk behind someone in an area they did not know. Moreover, they felt as if people were watching them and they feared that they might say something to the leader and cause a scene.
However, one of the male participants found it disturbing that a group of people that saw him follow a woman did not warn her or offer her help and in a way “save” her. The same person also added that a couple of minutes before the walk ended, one unknown person stopped the car and said something in Albanian to the woman. He could not understand what the stranger said because of language barriers; however, the stranger followed them for a bit by slowly driving his car. At the end of the performance, the woman leader asked the audience member to walk her back as she was scared of walking alone. Another male member of the public said that his performance ended at a graveyard. Since he does not enjoy a trip at night to the graveyard, he was very close to asking the leader to stop the walk as he did not feel comfortable being there. Nevertheless, he continued walking despite this. It was not enjoyable.
Furthermore, another remark was about the audio. It was so well-prepared that it added some darkness to the experience and was so believable that at times it sounded as if everything was going on outside. This made the person more alert to her surroundings, paying attention to everything that was going on, even if that was in the audio. One of the participants highlighted that only through the audio did he sympathize more with women. He was able to better comprehend the experiences and the struggle women have when going out, including the fact that every walk, whether to the store or the bar, is a planned walk supported by different mechanisms used by women to defend themselves against the things that are frightening to them. Further, one of them wondered how the women leaders felt having a stranger who is supposed to be their ally follow them.
Moreover, someone compared the experience to going to a psychologist, saying that “you know the truth, but you cannot understand it”, adding that if he were a woman, he would never leave the house without a pocketknife. He added that when he went into a narrower street, a group of guys harassed her regardless of whether he was there or not. Another one added that he felt responsible for her safety and that he is supposed to protect her.
At the end of the performance, the woman draws a line on the street using white chalk, then turns around and shows her palm to the audience, which has “My city ends here / Qyteti im mbaron këtu” written on it. One of the participants explained an interesting concern. After the woman drew the line, a group of teenagers who were unaware of the performance, crossed the line and continued walking. At that moment, to him, it seemed as if they were free and he and the woman leader were trapped within the boundaries. He felt as if they were going into the unsafe area and felt concerned for them; but, also, concerned for himself because he could not find the courage to cross the line himself.
I walked the walk on June 22. I approached the woman who led me in front of the Xhamia e Çarshisë and started walking behind her. The audio played in my ears. It was almost 11 PM. She took me through the main streets where there were many cars; local grocery shops were still open, and waste collectors were picking up the garbage. At some point I heard some music in the background. At first I thought it was simply from a car that passed by. But the music continued with the other and I thought to myself; “there’s no way they have the same song in the car.” Since the music seemed to be coming from the street, I thought there would be a bar or a pub. But it was simply in my ears from the audio. The woman who led me did not turn her head at any moment. But when we would make a turn, I caught her checking on me with her peripheral vision. I found that touching and caring, even though we did not know each other. That was a moment of female solidarity. Then we moved from the main road to a park. Very dark. Some lampposts blinked like in a movie setting. I found it funny how everything seemed as if prepared to scare me. A man walking briskly in the rhythm of that flashing light, accompanied by the sounds I was hearing in my ears were a perfect setting for a horror movie, but at that moment, I was rather getting annoyed. Was it the fatigue from a long day or something else, or knowing that I’m not alone, that this is a part of an experiment of some kind. I don’t know. Later I got a chance to meet a woman who led me and to ask her how she felt. She said she was fearing I would be scared when we entered the park, because another girl simply could not finish her walk there. What is it that triggers our fears? My companion said she was frustrated to be doing this in our society, while at the same time, happy she did it for a good cause, to challenge herself, to push her own boundaries and boundaries of her city. However, she doesn’t think this should be an activity for women. It should be particularly aimed at men; they should walk these walks in women’s shoes to see all the things they take into consideration on their way home.
I also took the guided walk on June 22. It was late, and the city had already started shutting down. There were only a handful of people around that I spotted throughout my 20-minute walk. Unlike most people, I did not feel uncomfortable following a woman. In fact, I felt like I was her guardian angel, her ally, defending her against her fears and the perceived dangers the night brings. She was walking in front of me, and I was following her, paying attention to every person that we encountered or passed us from behind. There was less traffic as well; however, the comfort that I found being led by someone who was more familiar with those streets made me cross the streets several times without even looking before crossing. I did not feel as endangered as I would have felt if I were to walk those streets alone. I can say that I feel less comfortable walking in that neighborhood during the day than I did that night. However, she did not look behind a single time, to check whether I was still there, whether I was still following her, or whether I was still safe. The audio I was listening to, nevertheless, made me zone out a couple of times and be alone with my thoughts. It made me reflect on whether I use similar defensive mechanisms when I am walking home at 1AM. I realized, because I always take the same path back home, lowering the volume of my music is the only one that I occasionally use. The audio made me think about all the dark things that sooner or later could happen to me if I am not more careful during the night, especially when alone. The audio was so captivating that I was looking around to find the source of the sounds I was hearing. Nevertheless, it is interesting to realize that women all around the world have similar fears and the same instincts when it comes to survival.