Female expats share their thoughts on violence against women following a recent attack

By Yin Lu Source:Global Times Published: 2016-4-17 19:58:01

Expat women, especially those who live or travel alone, are concerned about how safe they are in China and how they can better protect themselves. Photo: IC


Kiki Carson (pseudonym), an American in her 20s, has had her fair share of scary night-time experiences, so she could relate when news recently broke about a woman who was assaulted at a hotel in Beijing. "I feel for the girl and would've been angry and outraged too," said Carson, who has been living in Beijing since 2009.

The incident occurred on April 3, when, according to security footage that the victim posted on Weibo, she was attacked by a man in the hallway of a Yitel hotel in Chaoyang district.

In addition to assaulting her, the man attempted to drag her away when she tried to escape. The attack went on for five-to-six minutes, with her pleas for help from onlookers and staff going largely unheeded. The video triggered widespread public outrage, especially following revelations that her report was met with indifference from the hotel staff, the website where she booked the hotel and the local police.

Carson thinks the woman should be applauded for publicizing her traumatic experience, and sharing her story with the world. "The hotel and the personnel should be held responsible in some way for their actions," she said. "[The suspect] should not only come forward and apologize but also cover any medical or therapy bills she has." 

The Weibo hashtag #womanattackedatYitel has been viewed 2.7 billion times, and generated 2.8 million comments as of Sunday. The heat was upgraded after another video went viral, showing an interview with a manager of the hotel by Shandong Satellite TV in which he says since no one had died, nor had any fire or rape occurred, the woman was sensationalizing the incident.

According to a report by Xinhua News Agency, the man in the footage was captured by the police on April 7 in Henan Province. He told the police that he was handing out cards with information about prostitutes in the hotel and thought the woman was a competitor. All five suspects involved in the case have been detained.

While China has seen improved rights for women in recent years, as well as growing awareness of domestic abuse, attacks against women remain a harsh reality, and not just for Chinese women. The recent attack has also spurred conversation among expat women, who must rethink the safety of walking alone at night or traveling solo. The other question is whether or not they can count on Chinese bystanders to provide help in case of an incident, as well as how they can better protect themselves.

Expat women are advised not to walk alone at night in secluded areas. Photo: IC

Beijing at night

Though Carson said she tries to avoid walking alone through hutong at night, she generally feels safe riding a bike at night before 2 am. "Just not alone in secluded dark places," she said.

Compared with New York, which she has visited frequently, Carson thinks Beijing is much safer for women living or traveling alone. That doesn't mean she hasn't had her own run-ins. Carson said she was once "accosted" by her ex-landlord, but fortunately emerged unscathed. In another case, a car started following her while she was walking alone, with the driver continually asking her to get in.

Carson had to pretend she wasn't scared and just gave a friendly, "No, I'm just going a short distance, I can handle it." Then she pretended to call someone and faked a conversation, which is when he finally left.

"As a woman in China, I feel less safe than if I were a man. However, I've also learned to avoid confrontations as much as I can and to always look out for my safety." 

The craziest incident she ever experienced was in 2009, shortly after she'd first come to Beijing. At around 2 am, a drunk man came to Carson's place of work and started hitting one of the female staff there.

Carson came rushing down the stairs and threatened to call the police if he didn't stop, while the Chinese staff just stared and did nothing. 

So Carson stepped between the two and said she was an American and would call her embassy unless he stopped and "got  the hell out." That's when he finally left.

"I was very disappointed in the women and the staff," she said. But later she understood why they didn't intervene - the man was the woman's husband and he suspected that she was cheating.

However, Carson thinks nothing justifies domestic violence, and said she would still have called the police even if she had known they were a couple.

"Being harassed and not being able to get any retribution or help is outrageous," she said. "But within China, as a foreigner, I've learned never to have high expectations, and [in cases like this] to only speak English because the authorities here will do more for you if they know you are a foreigner."

Is China less or more safe?

Contrary to stories of this kind, 30-year-old student Clarice (pseudonym) told Metropolitan that she feels safer in China than in her native France.

 "I can wear skirts and dresses, and be pretty without being annoyed," she said. "In Europe, in some areas of France, as a woman you can't be feminine and safe anymore. Some guys whistle at you on the street, try to talk to you and if you don't want it, they may even insult you. Here in China I feel that guys behave better and respect women more in this aspect."

So, she doesn't feel the need to carry pepper spray or a whistle with her in China. She usually tries to get home before midnight but doesn't think she necessarily has to because she has faith in the safety of city taxis. However, she also pointed out that when traveling in China, she feels safer "in more developed areas."

"[For example,] I don't feel comfortable in Dongguan," she added. Dongguan, a city in Guangdong Province, is known as one of the biggest manufacturing centers in China, but is also associated with what in the past has been a thriving prostitution business.

Amna Siddiqui, 29, a Pakistani-Canadian English teacher living in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, shared a similar opinion.

"I always felt really, really safe," she said.

Under most circumstances, she isn't afraid to stay in a hotel and go out at 2 am to a McDonald's or some restaurant while there are men out on the street. "But in Canada, if I were walking at night, I would feel a little more unsafe."

One reason is that there are more police out on the streets. Another is the people: "I feel safe because it seems like everyone follows the law more in China," she said.

Combating the bystander effect

More than street harassment, Siddiqui is concerned with harassment at parties and social situations.

Siddiqui recently encountered one such situation. "[It] makes me sad and angry because I have traveled far and wide and walked alone at night, and then I get groped by some drunk foreigners at some parties."

Part of what made the incident so disturbing was people's reaction. "People think you shouldn't make a big deal out of it," she said. After telling the male and female friends who she was with what happened, Siddiqui said they dismissed her, with the guy responding, "It's just a party."

As with the hotel case, Siddiqui said these incidents point to a bigger issue - what social psychologists call the "bystander effect," or the failure of witnesses to intervene. This, says Siddiqui, who is a feminist, is especially a problem when it comes to domestic violence against women.

Having read several reports of stories similar to the Beijing hotel incident, Siddiqui thinks Chinese people tend not to help in situations like these. "It's just human nature, but maybe there is more awareness in Western countries."

She said Chinese people could certainly use a more developed sense of altruism.

In contrast to the shortage of such laws and regulations in China, many countries in the West, including the US, the UK and Canada, have laws designed to protect Good Samaritans from legal liability during rescue attempts, in an effort to encourage bystanders to lend a hand. Fortunately, Beijing recently began taking steps to address this issue.

According to a Xinhua News Agency report, a draft of the Beijing Emergency Medical Services Regulation was submitted to the 14th Standing Committee of Beijing Municipal People's Congress in July 2015. The draft legislation aims to protect Good Samaritans by penalizing anyone who fabricates stories or generates malicious claims against those who have tried to help them in an effort to obtain compensation. Shenzhen implemented such a law in 2013, making it the first city in China to institute legal protections for those trying to help during an accident.

Learning to protect oneself

 "I feel that there is more self-defense training in Western countries, but in China, people feel ashamed to talk about these things or they think a man should always protect a woman," Siddiqui said.

In the face of harassment, Siddiqui said she believes that women should immediately summon security or call the guy out and shame him in front of others.

She also recalled an incident she'd heard about in which a foreign woman who was being inappropriately touched on the subway asked for others' help; at the next stop, people pushed the suspect out of the subway car. "Maybe Chinese people are more protective of foreigners because of the country's reputation," she said.

Carson also advises expat women to pull the foreigner card, and speak English or their mother tongue at the police station.

For female expats living alone and women traveling alone to China, Carson suggests that they avoid being totally alone or leaving a friend behind at the end of the night.

"When and if you are followed, call a friend and notify someone that you are being followed, try to describe the situation and turn toward a well-lit area, or subway." 

She also recommends using anything heavy, like one's purse, to deliver a good blow. Women can also turn everyday objects like keys into weapons by clutching them between their knuckles in case they need to punch an attacker.

"Use your resources and your own street smarts."

Newspaper headline: On their own

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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