Male violence against women must be diminished. Intersectional solidarity is the way forward – a movement of which men must become a part.
Trigger Warning: Mentions of sexual harassment, violence, and abuse.
She just wanted to go home.
Women have felt overwhelmed as events unfolded over the last couple of weeks, beginning with the disappearance of a young woman from a densely-populated, ‘safe’, part of London, and ending with the confirmation of her murder. Many of us have been unable to sleep, to stop thinking about what happened, because it served as yet another gut-wrenching reminder that this fear is a normal, quotidian element of our lives, which makes it all the more insidious.
It is so normalised, so ingrained into our psyche – not to mention, into the fabric of our society – that we only questioned it only upon consuming another woman’s traumatic experience. Yet this case was especially disturbing, because it served as an uncanny reminder that no matter how hard we try to keep ourselves safe, the choice of our safety ultimately doesn’t lie in our own hands.
Sarah Everard did everything they tell you to do. She wore a bright green jacket; she called her boyfriend 15 minutes prior to her disappearance; she was walking down a busy, well-lit road. Sarah did everything ‘right’. The word ‘right’ is a problematic way to describe her demeanour, because women shouldn’t have to act in any particular way for people to respect their safety, and this word implies fault. But this was the textbook example that women are offered when we’re warned of how to avoid attackers.
Funny how men are never warned. Or told to restrain themselves. Or even told to ‘stay inside’ whenever there’s a prolific case of violence against women.
The demonstrations following the murder of Everard also highlighted the need for an intersectional approach to feminist solidarity. The pressure group, Sisters Uncut, who organised the vigil at Clapham Common, outlined how: ‘we are most at risk of gendered violence when we are women, when we are poor, when we are black or brown, when we are disabled, when we are trans, and when we are migrants’. Their statement underlines the grim reality that many face as a consequence of their race, disability, sexual and gender orientation, and citizenship status. The fight against gendered violence must shift its focus beyond centring only cis, white, able-bodied women, and promote solidarity across all these groups.
In the wake of Sarah’s murder, the hashtag #NotAllMen was trending above the hashtag Sarah Everard. Following a woman’s murder, enough men online felt it more important to protect their image – to prove that they are not rapists, they are not the problem, they are not murderers. Yet by doing so, by prioritising the proof of their own innocence, they have solidified their complicity. If your instinct is to say ‘not all men’, then you are part of the problem.
The recent UN survey has shown that 97% of women aged 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment. ‘Not all men’? Maybe. But almost ALL women endure sexual misconduct or violence, most commonly perpetrated by men. Every woman has, usually at multiple points in her life, experienced the deep fear that she may be harmed by a man. Walking down the street, looking over her shoulder, feeling that someone is following her. Speeding up only to hear the footsteps behind her speed up, too. And then comes the dreadful thought, ‘this is it’. Every woman has felt that horror.
If anyone feels tempted to tell women that they should simply avoid men who would harm them, let this be a reminder that the villains are among us; they can be our friends, our relatives, our co-workers. They are not just some horrifying figure lurking in the shadows of dark alleys. Out of all victims of sexual assault and rape, 90% know their attacker. We fear so much because we cannot know who among us is capable of inflicting violence among us.
It is too convenient to only get outraged when the news headlines tell stories of women who have been assaulted or murdered. Too easy to speak up in the wake of tragedy, to care when the reality of male-on-female violence is staring you right in the face. But men’s violent actions against women shouldn’t have to become a public spectacle from which we can leech a transient emotional response.
We have to come to terms with the fact that, unless men consciously take a stand against misogynistic violence and rape culture, society will become enmeshed in this regressive cycle that resists any form of change.
Even when the threat faced by women seems undeniable, too many men express doubt or disbelief. For every two steps we take forward, it always feels like we’re taking one step back. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are actionable steps that men can take to ensure that women feel safer. But individual action should not be discounted.
The most important one is: men – talk to your friends. Even if YOU’RE not harassing someone, being complicit and watching your friends get away with it is a key reason why the problem persists. Without being repudiated, assaulters will carry on. Stop putting the onus on women for preventing harm done to them. Stop expecting women to call you out on your inappropriate behaviour. Stop expecting women to take time to educate you on an issue which has been spoken about for decades. Take the time to educate yourselves.
And you may say, ‘but it is uncomfortable to call out my friends’. But are you comfortable prioritising your feelings over our safety and our lives?
For women, there is often a stigma attached to the experience of assault. We question our behaviour, our choice of clothing, our language. How about men start questioning their friends’ motives?
There are certain street etiquettes that can alleviate a woman’s fear when she’s walking down a road. ‘Crossing the street’ is not a revolutionary act, but it is helpful. So is being an active bystander. If you see someone being catcalled or harassed, intervene. Women are already scared senseless in situations like this – so use your voice.
That being said, it is undeniable that structural change will largely shift the status quo. Better urban planning, a systemic educational process, and tougher repercussions for offenders can help mitigate violence against women. It is equally the job of our elected political representatives to ensure that they enable these safeguarding measures. Yet a lacuna in understanding the root causes of misogynistic violence, and the police’s complicity towards it, has led to plans for police to patrol bars in undercover clothing. Our question is: who will protect us from plain-clothed police officers?
Too often, when men express their solidarity or outrage with violence against women, they do so as ‘fathers of daughters, husbands of wives, sons of mothers, or brothers of sisters’. Why is it necessary for a man to be related to a woman, or have one in his inner social circle, to care about women’s rights? Men should care about women because they are human beings who deserve a safe life free from fear and violence.
Now, more than ever, we need to stand in unity with women, those of marginalised genders, and survivors. So, to the men reading this, if you truly are an ally, now’s the time to prove it.
Sisters Uncut: A group taking direct action for domestic abuse survivors.
Everyone’s Invited: A movement committed to exposing rape culture.
White Ribbon: A charity that aims to end male violence against women by engaging with boys and men. “White Ribbon Ambassadors are male volunteers who engage with other men and boys to call out abusive and sexist behaviour among their friends, colleagues and communities to promote a culture of equality and respect.”
Imkaan: A UK-based, second-tier women’s organisation dedicated to addressing violence against Black and minoritised women and girls.
Women’s Aid: A grassroots federation working to amplify the voices of survivors, and end domestic violence.
Feminist mobilisation: Confronting Violence Against Women: The Power of Women’s Movements. Research and Policy Brief 21 (2016), Paola Cagna and Joannah Caborn Wengler, Geneva: UNRISD, http://www.unrisd.org/rpb21
London Feminist Library: a women-only feminist networking and campaigning organisation that is based in London, UK. LFN was formed in 2004 to unite London-based feminist groups and individuals in action.
24-hour National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline (Provides advice on all forms of domestic violence) 0808 2000 247 http://www.nationaldomesticviolencehelpline.org.uk/
Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre (Provides advice on all forms of sexual violence, past or present) National Freephone Helpline 0808 802 9999. 12.00-14.30 and 7.00 – 9.30 (daily) http://www.rasasc.org.uk/
Riddhi Kanetkar and Sophia Robinson
Header photo: Justin Tallis / AFP