The day a group of men set me on fire

Alice Atleee
Credit: Supplied

It was the distinctive smell of burning fabric that gave me the first inkling something was wrong.

I had been walking up Tottenham Court Road one afternoon last week, minding my own business. Earphones in, I was listening to The Guilty Feminist - a podcast fronted by comedian Deborah Frances-White, which explores the “noble goals” of twenty-first century feminists, and the “hypocrisies and insecurities which undermine them” - albeit with a lot of jokes thrown in.

One of her guests, the stand-up Cal Wilson was recounting sitting in a coffee shop with her boyfriend and explaining to him that, “like a fridge humming in the background”, a woman in a public place is always aware, at least on the periphery of her consciousness, that she is vulnerable - a potential target.

People either walked past or stood around bemused. One man tried to take a photograph on his phone

Suddenly I became aware of two things: firstly, that a group of young men was standing behind me, laughing; and secondly, that something was on fire. As I turned to see where the smell was coming from, the men walked past, making their way quickly up the road.

I spun round a few times, twisting my head from left to right, unable to figure out where the plume of smoke was coming from. I was confused. In the middle of a tarmacked street, what is there to burn?

Credit: skitterphoto

It was then that I realised, in a jolt of panic, that it was me who was on fire. I couldn’t work out where the smoke was coming from because it was pouring out of my own rucksack.

Those men, now well out of sight, had lit the sheet of paper that I had tucked into the side-pocket of my bag — a huge rolled-up mind map that I had been working on for days, in preparation for my imminent university finals.

Maybe they’d tossed a lit cigarette onto it. Maybe they’d had enough time — because I was plugged into my podcast and nobody else was paying attention  — to simply hold up a lighter to it, laughing, until the paper had really started to burn.

Would they have done the same thing to a man? Or if I had been with friends? I’ll probably never know

I grabbed the map out of my rucksack and threw it on the ground, trying to stamp out the flames. People either walked past or stood around bemused. One man tried to take a photograph on his phone. It was then that I realised that, in fact, my whole rucksack, just a couple of centimeters away from my bare arm, was ablaze. The fire had made its way through the thick material and was now licking at my dissertation draft and laptop case.

Eventually, the manager from a shop came out and asked me what had happened. It was only then that I was able to figure it out for myself: I had just been assaulted by a group of men on the street, while listening to a podcast discussing women getting assaulted by men on the street. 

Had I not just heard the positive, strong, funny words of The Guilty Feminist, I might have started to cry or run away. I wouldn’t have felt the incident was worth reporting: after all, it was only my papers and bag that were damaged. No harm done, right?

Comedian Deborah Frances-White, who fronts The Guilty Feminist podcast Credit: Julian Andrews/Eye R8 Productions Ltd

I am also grateful that I had just finished reading Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man. In it, he writes: “For a man to lash out is still so expected as to be commonplace, yet to be the victim of such behavior is severely traumatising.”

Without these voices - a public support system of experienced, wise thinkers - I might never have spoken up about being attacked.

As it happened, I rang the police and reported the crime. They took me seriously and are searching CCTV to identify the group of men who decided to set me alight. Honestly, I don’t hold out much hope that the perpetrators will be found: it all happened so fast that I was barely able to give a description. The point is that I refuse to be victimised.

I know many other women have experienced much more serious and damaging assaults. In the scheme of things, I suppose I am lucky. Lucky that I felt able to report it, where so many others don’t. Lucky I wasn’t physically harmed. Lucky to know that I wasn’t alone.

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There is also a good chance that I was not burnt because of my gender. Those men might have been opportunists, who just spotted a tempting piece of paper - not a lone 22-year-old girl in a skirt — and decided to set that, not me, alight.

If you asked them, I expect they would tell you that they had done it for a laugh. Would they have done the same thing to a man? Or if I had been with friends? I’ll probably never know. The only thing I am sure of is that it should not have happened.

Earlier in that podcast, Cal Wilson proposed that the way to reclaim your power when you have been attacked is to tell the story - to make it yours. The actions of those men have ignited my desire to take back control. That is what I am doing by writing this article.