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Bali: the Shadow Beneath the Smiles

I was strolling through the backstreets of Bali, sun warming my back as the day neared its end. A hop in my step, I bobbed along to the perky tune chirping in my ears.

A boy, who couldn’t have been a day over twelve, emerged from an alley to my right. I smiled at him. He wolf whistled at me. I jerked my head away and schooled my features into bored neutrality, trying but failing to stamp down the sudden seething in my stomach. Deprived of a reaction, he began to trail me, his repetitive whistle taking on a frustrated tone. I shifted into a jog. He gave up and turned around. The annoyance rolling off me didn’t ease as I reached the road’s bend and spotted two young men up ahead.

One lounged on his motorbike while the other faced the rice paddy. The first set of eyes snapped to me, quickly followed by the second. I followed my usual routine, face tilted to the asphalt as I neared the duo. Within the ten-metre range, the comments started. Innocent, at first—casual greetings and smiles. I nodded tersely, in acknowledgement, but realised my mistake when this was taken as encouragement. They proceeded to ask for my name and age, in broken English, and then in Indonesian, what my ‘hourly rate’ was. I ground my teeth and crossed to the opposite side of the road before passing the men. However, the irritation unfurling within quickly turned to fear as I heard the motorbike rev behind me. They mounted it and veered onto my side of the road, still hurling comments and crude questions. Mere feet behind me, I could see their hulking shadow splashed on the ground. A drainpipe lay to my left, the walls of a temple to my right. As wicked scenarios flashed in my mind, my chest jolted with despair at the realisation, and reluctant decision, that I would rather throw myself into the drain than have their hands touch me; would rather twist both ankles in the 5ft fall than risk my body being used and discarded in the rice paddy behind us.

I pushed my exhaustion to the backburner and willed my feet to move faster. Eyes snagging on an old, gnarled tree, I veered right and hurtled toward it. They gained speed. Hopscotching over thick, protruding roots, I risked a glance over my shoulder. The bike hesitated and they looked at each other. Then laughed. Turning in a lazy circle, the men ended their pursuit and drove off in the opposite direction. I wanted to scream in relief, but decided to save that for later—instead bolting for home and not slowing until my bedroom windows came into view.

There is every chance that those young men simply wished to toy with yet another white, privileged girl on the island, and had no desire to actualise the gross pictures zipping through my head. I know plenty of Balinese guys who would sooner harm themselves than forcefully touch any one of their female friends. Nonetheless, it still sends a shudder through me to consider what the alternative could have been.

Three months ago, I was seated in the local police station to report a robbery. An officer tried to snap photos of me on his phone, not bothering to be discreet, despite my dad’s presence nearby. Shielding my face, I shoved my seat back and turned toward the door, just as a young Balinese woman stumbled in. The mascara smudged under her eyes looked like two blooming bruises. Clad in heals and denim shorts, she was being stripped bare by the creepy staring of all seven men seated around us. Sobs cracked through her chest as she slumped into a mouldy chair, facing one of the officers. Because of my broken Indonesian, I could only understand snippets, but the gist was clear; she had been raped. The men shifted uncomfortably. Some peered down at their forgotten papers while, to our horror, the others cracked lupine grins, laughing and sharing jokes at the woman’s expense— “What did she expect when dressed like a whore?”

Someone shuffled me into another room, and I threw a desperate glance in her direction. I felt utterly useless, knowing that her cries for help would be met with silence. The police might offer the woman a few empty promises, and perhaps her friends would try to hunt down the perpetrator, but the world would continue as it had before she stepped into that decrepit building.

The attire a woman decides to deck herself in should never, ever come into the equation. Saying that a woman’s tight dress is responsible for her rape is like blaming a burn victim for wearing flammable clothing. Boys aren’t born with some predatory instinct to threaten or violate their counterparts; boys are ingrained with the falsity that women enjoy being unrelentingly hunted; boys are told that showing emotion and vulnerability is a sign of weakness; boys are expected to act like overbearing cavemen to win the attention of a female. Telling me “boys will be boys” is absolute bullshit.

If you are truly interested in a girl, approach her with good intentions. Don’t make her feel threatened. Don’t tell her that you ‘won’t take no for an answer’, as I once was in High School. Respect her. You needn’t place her on a pedestal, or worship the ground that she walks on. Treat her for what she is: your equal.

I long for the day when I can walk down a dark street and not feel my heart pulsing in my throat. Perhaps that day won’t ever come, at least within my lifetime, but we must start the conversation. We must strive to do and be better—if not for the girl who thinly escaped the shadows, then the girl who wasn’t as fortunate, and ended up sprawled and broken in that drainpipe.

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