Jakarta isn’t a walkable city. Footpaths, where they exist, look like they’ve been showered with meteors. The traffic is an engorged snake of cars, motorbikes, angkots, street vendors. Green spaces are almost unheard of, and many choose to wear sanitation masks, rather than breathe the air.
I’ve always been an avid walker. When I backpacked through Europe with my mother at the age of eleven, she instilled in me that old traveller’s maxim: getting lost is the best way to find yourself. When I moved to Melbourne’s inner-north at eighteen, I gave up any ambition of getting my driver’s license. When I spent a month alone in San Francisco, I made myself dizzy climbing peaks, tramping from Mission to Marina.
I knew I woudn’t be able to indulge my passion for the footpath, even before I began my two-month residency at Komunitas Salihara, an arts centre located in Jakarta’s traditional southside district of Pasar Minggu. I also knew that blending in wouldn’t be easy.
My first day at Salihara, I got a fashion lesson from one of my hosts.
‘Sleeveless tops and shorts are okay. But don’t show your tummy. There are many kampung – villagers – who aren’t used to seeing that.’
I hadn’t expected to be able to wear shorts, so I was pretty pleased with this prognosis. My pleasure was short-lived. My first and only time leaving the compound in denim cutoffs, the tension was palpable. Men’s eyes glowed. Women averted their faces. A pair of guys zooming past on a motorcycle clapped their hands inches from my nose and hollered, ‘HEY! MISS! HEY!’ squawked with laughter when I shrunk away. By the time I returned from my ten-minute walk to the minimart, I was bathed in sweat that had little to do with the heat.
One of the great privileges of whiteness, in settings where white is seen as default, is the sense of anonymity it lends, unexamined belonging. A white woman in Australia is unlikely to be stared at simply because of the colour of her skin, and a hijab is more likely to provoke harassment than a pair of hotpants. Anonymity equals mobility, and what allows us to pass without comment is largely contingent on where we are. It’s a truth universally acknowledged, however, that a single woman, no matter where she’s walking, is more likely to be harrassed than a man.
Two weeks into my residency, another artist arrived, a white man. In these two weeks, I’d grown accustomed to jumping over certain potholes, walking around others; to ignoring catcalls from the men who sold caged birds across the road. Yet I hadn’t ventured further than a kilometre from my lodgings on foot. I also hadn’t seen another white person in the entire two weeks.
The first time this white man went out alone, he walked for four hours. ‘Wasn’t it hard?’ I questioned him, and he eagerly told me yes, spoke of the heat, traffic. When I asked about people, he mentioned girls blowing him kisses, men trying to get him to come inside their shops. He was out on his own again the next day – with his camera.
I went out with this man a few times and, though there were stares, their quality was different: smiles and waves instead of leers, jeers. While I hurried past the birdsellers, he stopped to photograph them.
Most women who’ve experienced street harassment will be irked by advice that we should take it as a compliment, be grateful for the attention, or at the very least, laugh it off. When what we crave is anonymity, the simple freedom of walking down a street without comment, such attention takes us out of ourselves, forces us to exist as public objects. When such attention is sustained, it wears us down, makes us habitually self-conscious. This leads to shame, alienation, a desire to withdraw from public spaces.
On my worst days, I felt my mind taking dark turns, othering those who had othered me. Instead of individuals, I saw an obstructive mass. My nerves flared hearing questions that I’d never had to answer before.
‘Darimana?’ – Where do you come from?
‘Mau kemana?’ – Where are you going?
‘Revenge against the colonizers,’ a local joked when I told her how I didn’t know what to feel when I heard the word bule shouted at me.
‘It’s a small price to pay,’ I agreed, laughing with her. ‘I shouldn’t complain.’
I shouldn’t complain, that was my refrain when whole construction crews stopped work to stare. When, as I stood on a traffic island, a guy on a bike pointed at me and laughed like a maniac. When, waiting in line at a minimart, a guy slung his arm around me and snapped a selfie with my unmade face. When an Uber driver, pulling up at my destination, turned around, gave me a filthy once-over, and rated me one star. When, looking at photos from a visit to a famous temple, I saw the same middle-aged man in the background of every shot, pointing his camera at my turned back. A small price to pay. Just laugh it away.
Because, no matter how powerless I felt, I couldn’t lose sight of my privilege. I knew that I was lucky to be a guest at Salihara, to have the opportunity to create new work in a new environment. I knew that my time was too precious to be wasted on negative feelings; that I should make the most of every day, find new places, meet new people. I knew that the very fact of me being in Jakarta was a testament to my mobility, the freedom with which I moved through the world.
I knew, beyond this, that I was safe. I knew that, humiliating as it was, the harrassment levelled at me carried no real threat of violence; that more bad things happen to women in their own homes, under veils of family and religion, than out on the streets. I knew that I felt less likelihood of being raped and murdered in Jakarta, locked out of my accommodation at 4AM, than I did walking in broad daylight in Richmond, Indiana, where pedestrians were scarce and so many houses were abandoned. I knew that any crimes against me were likely to be met with outrage, investigated.
But it’s one thing to know all this, quite another to live by it. As the weeks wore on, I found reasons to stay indoors. Days passed in a fog, my greatest achievement going to the minimart for Diet Coke. My moods spiked and dipped in a way that made me feel thirteen again. My skin broke out, and I had trouble controlling my urge to pick until it bled. One day, braiding my hair, I found a colorless thread and frantically skyped my mother, asking if it could possibly be what I thought it was.
She told me about my grandmother, twenty-three years old, being teased about her premature grey hairs by some women from her village in Malta while sheltering from German bombs. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry over my own pathetic shelteredness. Being catcalled in a foreign country – it’s hardly World War II.
My last night at Salihara, I had dinner with my hosts. ‘I saw you walking yesterday,’ one of the men, Danny, told me as we sipped our drinks. ‘I called out, but you were like this.’
He gestured around his head, as if to indicate a blinkered horse. I tried to explain, the men, the noise. ‘It’s okay,’ he stopped me. ‘I understand.’
I’ll always regret not saying hi to Danny that day on the street. I’ll always regret a lot of things about Jakarta; most of all, that I was never able to get lost the way I yearned to. But there are moments of grace I try to remember. Crossing safely through traffic. Fearlessly killing cockroaches. Slathering myself in three kinds of mosquito repellent and slipping into my kimono, as bats flitted on the balcony. Reading one-handed over a steaming plate of cah kangkung. Small, solitary graces that can’t be divorced from my body, any more than the humiliation. This is where I find myself.
The author thanks Asialink Arts and the Australia-Indonesia Institute.
Laura Woollett is the author of a short story collection, The Love of a Bad Man (Scribe, 2016), and a novel, Beautiful Revolutionary (forthcoming Scribe, 2018). Her writing has appeared in Elle, Literary Hub, The Guardian, and our own publication, among others. In 2017, she was awarded an Asialink Arts grant to work on West Girl, a memoir about growing up in an Asian-Australian blended family. She is based in Melbourne.