I didn’t know Kim Wall, but I wish I had. We were both the same age; both freelance journalists; both covering similar subjects in similar places. Her features – spanning the fashions of "Furries" – were the kind that, as a writer, made me go, “oh damn, I wish I’d thought of that.”
When she went missing while interviewing Danish inventor Peter Madsen on board his submarine on the night of August 10 this year, I followed the news with intensifying nausea. A few hours after her death was announced, I received a WhatsApp from a fellow freelancer and close friend. “I can’t stop thinking about how many times I’ve put myself in far more dangerous situations,” she said. “I know you do too.”
The dangerous situation she described was simple. It was being alone with a man. And what happened to Kim could have happened to any of us.
This summer, I reunited with photojournalist Allison Joyce, in Dhaka, for three months of reporting in numerous brothels across Bangladesh. Together with our translator, we fine-tuned the techniques needed to deal with sexist situations. Sure, there was the obvious tactic: covering up, even in 40 degree heat, 80 per cent humidity and absolutely no air con. Then there were the tools. Between us, we carried pepper spray, one extendable police truncheon, and knuckle-dusters bound with duct tape to make the finger holes smaller, tighter – less likely to fall off with the thrust of a fist. For her 30th birthday, Allison had asked her parents for a torch bright enough to blind attackers in the dark. I also had a knife.
We developed our own forms of self-defense. We teamed up against the many men who leered for too long – shouting "lucchia" (literal, beautiful translation: creepy fucker) at those who didn’t take the hint. The knuckledusters were flashed once, and the truncheon came out more than once. As women, we were used to being outnumbered by men; and as freelancers, we were used to working alone. The support made us all feel stronger.
It didn’t make us ever feel safe.
The first time I realised the real risk of reporting, I was in Benin – a country which I shamefully signed up to visit without knowing where it actually was. Upon arrival, an hour-long security briefing spanned casual pickpockets to armed robbery – but for all the session’s supposed depth, sexual assault and gender-based dangers didn’t come up. It felt like a given – of course that stuff would happen, too. When something did happen, on my very last night, I told myself to get over it – it was just part of the job.
Between us, we carried pepper spray, one extendable police truncheon, and knuckle-dusters bound with duct tape
It felt like part of the job in Bulgaria, too, when a solo drink in my hostel bar ended with a chair pushed against my bedroom door, lights on all night, lest the aggressive man who "hated journalists even more than women" worked out where I slept. Same went for Sri Lanka, where editors commissioned my pieces but couldn’t cover my expenses – so I saved money by sharing a dormitory, and awoke to find a guy half naked and pressed up against me in my bunk.
I was never alone in Iraq – but it didn’t matter. I could still witness the misogyny, and in this case it felt even closer to home. In the evenings, stubbled correspondents still sat at plastic tables trading tales of women who worked independently. (“She called me for help from Mosul one night because she thought the soldiers were going to rape her,” one guy recalled. “I was like, “what do you expect me to do? This is what you get if you insist on wearing jeans.””)
And in Nepal, I accidentally made my own headlines when groups of men pushed me against a wall while I was covering Holi, a Hindu celebration of love that saw them use coloured powder as a ploy to rub their hands against my neck, legs and chest. Back at my apartment, I typed through my tears with shaking fingers. “It happens to us all,” was the response I received from hundreds of women across Kathmandu. “That’s why I stayed inside today.” At that, I nearly cried again. Women shouldn’t have to stay inside to avoid assault. But experiencing it should never be part of anyone’s job.
As journalists, we know sexual assault or gender-based violence is never something to feel ashamed of – and never the woman’s fault. But when you’re a female freelancer in a foreign country, you’re still forced to take responsibility for your own safety. Risk is considered par for our professional course: an inevitability of working within unfamiliar countries and “hostile environments.”
But ask any female foreign correspondent or photographer, and she’ll tell you that the most frequent threats to her safety are rarely war-torn and dramatic. They don’t often happen when you’re standing in the epicentre of an epidemic or on the frontline while wearing a helmet and bulletproof vest. Truth is, they’re not even exclusive to conflict zones or journalism at all. Marked by the weight of a hand on a thigh, hot breath on your neck or the rude invasion of personal space, they make us all palm the pointy end of our pens like a weapon. In the absence of HR teams and security budgets – and in the presence of widespread, global misogyny – men are simply another factor to coordinate around. “Wearing a one-piece bathing suit under clothing can also deter/delay attackers, giving more opportunity to possibly escape,” advises the Freelance Frontline Register’s “Advice For Female Journalists”. It shouldn’t have to be that way.
What happened to Kim Wall was horrifying. It could have happened to any of us. And until journalism shifts to make editors start paying as much attention to our safety as our stories; and our male colleagues stop thinking violence against women is, at best, laughable (and worst, all our fault), we won’t be able to stop.
The fee for this story is being donated to the Kim Wall memorial grant.