Content warning: This article discusses assault and may be distressing.
One of the precious, often fleeting, aspects of youth is fearlessness. We’re brave and invincible; we don’t know what we don’t know. For the lucky few, life has not yet inducted them into its darker reality.
Aya Maasarwe was not so fortunate. At 21 years old, she had bucket-loads of courage, making the brave decision to leave behind her friends and family in Israel, and travel to Melbourne to study abroad.
Walking home at night is not an act that should require courage. All women have the right to safely access and enjoy community spaces, without fear of attack. Aya’s sister, Noor, posted to Instagram a picture of the shoes Aya wore on her last night, with a powerful accompanying message: everyone has the right to get home safely.
When I was 18, I took what I thought was a calculated risk: walking home from the station after dark. It wasn’t late ― about 9.30pm ― so with youthful fearlessness, I laughed off my boyfriend’s suggestion of a lift home.
I was about 500 metres from home when I noticed two men behind me. I ignored my instincts, telling myself not to be disconcerted: they had as much a right as me to walk down the street. As a precaution though, I grabbed my keyring and wove my keys through my fingers.
When I turned around again, the men were right behind me. I froze, before one of them knocked me down and put his hand over my mouth. Instinctively, I swung out with the hand clutching my keys, and the man holding my mouth let go long enough for me to scream.
I was lucky. My scream alerted someone in a nearby house, who switched on their light. No-one came out to see if I was okay, but the light scared off the men.
That incident fired in me a sense of rage. I was in my neighbourhood ― on my street ― and I’d been attacked for doing nothing more than trying to get home safely. It also hardened in me a resolve: I wouldn’t let men like that win.
When I hear about women like Aya, Eurydice, and Jill, I can’t help but think ‘that could have been me’. I wonder whether those men went on to hurt other women, or whether they realised the error of their ways and learned from their own near-miss.
I can say with certainty that every woman I know has at some point felt scared, disconcerted or genuinely in fear for her life while walking our streets. The sad fact is that this reflects the basic lack of equality inherent in our society.
One in three Australian women has experienced physical violence, while one in five has experienced sexual violence. The most common perpetrators of this violence remain our partners and family members.
The case becomes even more complex for women from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds, like Aya.
Violence against women doesn’t discriminate based on age, race, language, religion or socio economic status. What we do know is that women from CALD backgrounds face additional challenges that make them particularly vulnerable during situations of domestic and family violence (DFV).
Women of migrant or refugee background are less likely to seek assistance due to barriers like lack of knowledge about their rights, fear of deportation and removal of children, lack of English language skills, or shame and the need to maintain family honour.
There is a real and pressing need for funded domestic violence services that are tailored specifically for women from CALD backgrounds. Some states, such as Victoria, have explicit DFV funding for these communities, but in other states including NSW, women are falling through the gaps.
What is particularly sad in Aya’s case is the almost complete erasure of her cultural identity in much of the reporting of her death. Aya was from a Palestinian family residing in Israel, but many commentators have mistakenly labelled her as Israeli, or Arab-Israeli, in a nod to the nationality on her passport. They’re labels that her family have firmly rejected, with one family friend telling The Guardian: “We have Israeli passports but Palestine is in our hearts.”
This cultural whitewashing is just another way in which women’s agency over their own lives, identities and bodies is erased during acts of violence. Aya is no longer here to tell her story, to define her identity, and so they’re being told and defined for her.
In many cases of domestic and gender-based violence, media reports are saturated with the familiar narrative of shocked neighbours, friends and family who can’t understand this act of violence from a ‘hard working, dedicated father/husband’. What becomes lost is the stories of the victims of the violence ― their qualities and achievements, the potential cut short.
In Aya’s case, reports emerging about her alleged murderer only muddy the waters. He appears to be a young man whose life has been affected by drugs and depression. He was reportedly a troubled teen and spent time in foster care.
While this information sheds light on this young man’s circumstances, it does not excuse or explain this act of violence.
Aya had the right to get home safely. We all do.
I don’t have the panacea for senseless acts of violence. What I do know is that we need welcoming, well-lit and planned spaces, so that it’s not incumbent on individuals to feel they must protect themselves. Until something shifts, women navigating our streets at night alone will continue to grip their keys or call a friend ― ploys that, for Aya at least, made no difference to her fate.
Everyone has the right to get home safely, and we all have a responsibility to strive for a world where they do. These attacks on women should not be normalised by their continued prevalence.