By Isabel Wong

It was a crisp winter night in Hong Kong. I got on the last train home after a lovely Sunday evening. I had been doing the same for quite a while and nothing bad had ever happened to me. There were plenty of people on the train as it was a Sunday night, so the train was not exceptionally quiet and depressing as it is on weekday nights.

As soon as I took a seat, I exchanged a glance with the man who was sitting right opposite me. His glance stayed longer than it should have so I realised that he was staring at me. He kept on staring at me for the rest of the train ride. When the train got to my station, he got off the train at the same time as I did. Since his staring behaviour made me feel uncomfortable, I walked slightly faster than usual and went straight out of the paid area.

I noticed he speeded up as I walked out of the station. At that point, I was still being optimistic; it was just a coincidence that he got off at the same station and walked the same direction as I did, but I was also feeling suspicious.  So I decided to take a different route which would lead me to a quiet but brighter mall. I tricked him into believing that I was going inside the mall, so as soon as I saw him going straight into the mall, I changed my direction and took the route I usually take to walk home.

Peel Street at night. Photo: Jens Schott Knudsen.

This was a slightly more dangerous route as there were dark corners but it was the quickest way home. As I walked up some stairs to a footbridge I looked back to check if the guy was following, and he had changed his direction and followed me to the other route. I tried my best to look calm, I stood at the same spot and stared at him. He was literally a few steps away from me.

As soon as he realised I had noticed he was following me, he walked away from me and took a different route. It could still lead him to where I live if he knew the area well. As he was walking down the bridge, he still kept on looking in my direction and yet he could not do me any harm right away because I would already have enough time to run. Then I rang a person I trust and ran home straight away.

As much as I consider myself a strong and independent woman, this experience is absolutely terrifying. Something bad would have already happened if that guy followed someone else who was not as alert as me. I found myself searching for articles like ‘top 10 must-have safety apps for women’ and ‘how to tell when you’re being followed and get away safely’ when I got home. I even decided to equip my bag with hair spray and rape alarms.

But just because I am independent, cautious and go home late often, does it mean I do not deserve the same degree of safety and sense of security as women who go home earlier than I usually do? Why do women get followed just because they look attractive while men seldom get into danger because of their appearances? I was lucky enough to receive lots of messages and advice from my friends as soon as they knew about what happened to me when I asked for advice on my social media page. I took my friends’ advice and reported it to the police and the management office of the estate the next morning.

Hong Kong tram at night. Photo: Pixabay.

I do not see myself as a victim of gender inequality. But one thing society has to realise is, women have to worry about more problems than men do and most of the time, the problems we have are completely out of our control. Women’s breasts serve some biological purposes and one of them is breastfeeding. But how many people associate breasts with motherhood when they see them? Whenever people see women with their breasts exposed, they immediately think it is sexual and it is a symbol of seduction. Every day we see countless attractive young girls showing off their boobs or cleavages on advertisements, this is because society markets women’s breasts as sexual objects.

When considering whether to have children or not, women still have to consider what society would think of them, even though it is a matter of personal choice. Recently, I’ve read an article about whether going childless or having kids would cost women more. Employers often have less respect for childless women’s non-work responsibilities and expect them to pick up some of the slack for their parent co-workers. Women without children also experience more workplace harassment and mistreatment than mothers.

So ‘I like to live my life’ is not a strong enough reason to convince society to respect childless women’s personal decisions. A woman who decides to go childless because she wants to prioritise her career is expected to take on extra work because ‘apparently’ she should have more time than other women who have children to take care of. Childless women are punished for not having children regardless of their reasons. So does it mean mothers generally have a better life than childless women? It does not seem like it. Having children actually shrinks a woman’s paycheque. Women with children are a little less likely to be hired and there is about 5% reduction in pay for each child a woman has while it works the other way round for men.

It is obvious that society focuses more on what people expect from women instead of what women need. In the UK, tampons are taxed and categorised as ‘luxury’ while Jaffa cakes, pitta bread and razors are zero rated and seen as ‘essentials’ by the European Union. In this case, the natural way women’s bodies work is seen as a ‘luxury’ while people’s yearning for snacks and obsession over perfectly shaved legs are seen as ‘essentials’. Society always introduces the idea that women cannot have it all. It’s either career or family, and indeed, the way society works is designed to emphasise this idea. Isn’t it sad that the reality is exactly like what the article says: ‘women can’t win, they can’t break even, and they can’t get out of the game’?

Photo: HKFP.

I do not hate men. In fact, people who support gender equality should invite men to join the conversation and the battle. It is common for people to say ‘I am sorry to hear what happened to you, you should not have to suffer this at all.’ But then what? People go business as usual until they hear another unfortunate story that happens to their female friends and say a few words about it. This is not enough.

We need to go beyond just saying ‘I am sorry to hear that’; we need to encourage women around the world to use their voices and tell the world what they need. In order to do so, we need to provide tangible (equal pay, non-discriminatory laws, access to education & healthcare etc.) and intangible (attitude, treatment and culture) support to let women know that their voices are respected. In a world where women will become crime victims purely because of their appearances and outfits, everybody has the responsibility to protect women from violence and danger. We should not have to suffer this and therefore we need people’s actions to help combat problems that we should not have to worry about.

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.