By Mehr Lokhandwala
Trigger Warning: This article discusses gender-based violence and murder. Please take the appropriate precautions.
Image via Chatelaine
On the evening of March 3rd 2021, Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old British woman, was walking home after leaving a friend’s house when she disappeared. On March 4th, her boyfriend reported her missing. A police investigation followed where the police looked through footage and knocked on doors for anyone with information. On March 9th, nearly a week after she was first reported missing, police arrested Wayne Couzens, an active police officer who was suspected of abducting her. On March 10th, Sarah’s remains were found and identified by her dental records. While post-mortem exams have been conducted, the cause of death has not been made public. When Sarah’s remains were found Wayne Couzens was charged with the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard. On March 13th, a vigil was held for Sarah.
Image via My London
Shortly after Sarah’s body was found, Reclaim These Streets, a London-based movement was started. This was in honour of not only Sarah but of all the other women who have been killed due to gender-based violence. Reclaim the Streets helped organise a vigil for Sarah for people to pay their respects. As people gathered, London Police saw this as a violation of COVID-19 restrictions since hundreds of people gathered in Clapham Common which is the park where Sarah disappeared.
Numerous photos and videos of police using force against the women who were protesting came to light. An article written by Ebony-Renee Baker states that:
"A prominent feminist group tweeted that the police, ironically, waited until dark to inflict violence; several women were arrested, handcuffed, and shoved to the ground. A powerful image from the night went viral, showing police physically detaining a woman wearing a T-shirt that read, “abuse of power comes as no surprise.” U.K. government officials subsequently criticized the London police force, with some calling for its commissioner to resign."
From the photos, videos and accounts of the night, it became evident that while women were paying their respects, police used unnecessary physical force, threatening the safety of these women. Sarah Everard was abducted and murdered by an active police officer. Thus, women cannot feel safe when the very institutions meant to protect them are the ones harming them. Moreover, not only is there a physical threat but there is also a metaphorical threat since often when women go to law enforcement to report sexual assault they are treated in an unacceptable manner. Questions that imply blame are asked rather than questions that are actually useful. In the United States, among other places in the world, videos of women being sexually assaulted while being arrested have been spread. How are women going to ever feel safe when even society’s protectors, the police, threaten them?
An article written by Grace Back states, “women everywhere will know exactly what Sarah was thinking on that walk home. We know why she took the longer route along the well-lit streets, and why she called her partner along the way. She was doing these things because these are the things women do when we walk alone at night. These are the precautions we take, even though it shouldn’t be about precaution, it should be about men simply not raping or murdering women’. When going on a walk becomes unsafe it should be abundantly clear that there is something terribly wrong. This should not be normal. Going on a walk should not be a life and death situation.
Sarah’s death sparked many conversations around gender-based violence. Unfortunately, what happened to Sarah is not unique. The truth is that many women walk around fearing for their lives. As many women have been saying, ‘anyone of us could have been Sarah’. Ebony-Renee Baker perfectly writes, “in the same way that women are held accountable for guarding their drinks in public to avoid sexual assault, and victims are shamed for their assaults based on their behaviour and choice of clothing, the blame cannot and should not ever be placed on women for merely existing”. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, since the age of 16, half of Canadian women have gone through physical or sexual violence and about every six days a woman is killed by intimate partner violence.
Most of us know women who have been sexually assaulted, yet none of us knows any perpetrators. Conversations around issues that women face, such as sexual assault or intimate partner violence, get responses such as, ‘what was she wearing?’, ‘why was she out that late?’, ‘what/why did she drink?’ and ‘how did you let that happen to you?’ These responses are called victim-blaming. It should not be a woman’s responsibility to make sure that she is not assaulted or murdered. An article by David Fledman states that when we victim blame, “it marginalizes the survivor, minimizes the criminal act, and makes people less likely to come forward and report what has happened to them”. The Canadian Resource Centre For Victims of Crime reports that victim-blaming can ‘stem from misconceptions about victims, perpetrators, and the nature of violent acts. Victims are sometimes wrongfully portrayed as passive individuals who seek out and submit to the violence they endure. Offenders are seen as hapless individuals who are compelled to act violently by forces they cannot control'.
After Sarah’s death, the all too well-known ‘#notallmen’ resurfaced, a hashtag that started in 2011 on Twitter. #notallmen completely misses the point. An article by Vaishnavi Mohan states, ‘women are violated, abused and humiliated for the sole reason that they are women […] don’t drown female voices in an attempt to protect your ego. Smashing the Patriarchy is important for both men and women. But if you need that reminder every time a woman questions or calls out a man, you are not an ally’. The reality is that we know that not all men are perpetrators, however, most men, consciously or subconsciously, participate in the oppression of women.
In fact, no one should be saying ‘not all men’, because it takes away from the real issue at hand here. When the issue is women being raped and killed while going about their daily lives, it is absolutely ridiculous that men turn it around to make themselves the centre of attention by saying ‘not all men’. Just because you have not sexually assaulted or harmed another woman does not mean you deserve a gold medal. There is more to do than not harm women.
"We know it's 'not all men' but we absolutely don't know which men it is." - Emma Burnell
When the #metoo movement blew up in 2017, women everywhere believed that we had made it more than clear that violence against women needed to stop. Women had really started to think that, as Oprah said, ‘nobody ever has to say me too again’. We had hope that walking home would not be a life or death situation. However, many women wake up every day painfully aware that walking down the street is a life or death situation and that we are not ever completely safe. What happened to Sarah Everard, has shaken some of us to the core, however, the reality is, we are shaken to the core almost every day when we hear similar stories and that is because these injustices occur every single day.
If you think that you have not oppressed women in your life, think again. If you have ever told your daughter to change her clothing because you think it is too ‘revealing’, then you have participated in oppressing women. Not only is that oppression, but this strengthens the misconception that women are responsible for the violence they face and it takes the choice away from them to have rights to their own body; teaching them that their body is an object. In other words, if you only respect women who align with your views, who wear clothing that you approve of, who behave in ways that you approve of, that is not feminism, that is not being an ally, that is completely absurd.
Whilst women everywhere face the reality of never being 100% safe, I want to acknowledge that black women and trans women experience gender-based violence on a different level. This is where the idea of intersectionality comes in. In a Ted Talk by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw called The Urgency of Intersectionality, (which is extremely helpful to watch when trying to understand intersectionality) she says, ‘I began to use the term "intersectionality" to deal with the fact that many of our social justice problems like racism and sexism are often overlapping, creating multiple levels of social injustice’. These categories often tend to overlap and create an oppressive system that discriminates against those who fit into these overlapped areas. Applying the idea of intersectionality when talking about gender-based violence brings many more issues to light. In context to black women and trans women we need to look at it through a different lens
As mentioned above, trans women experience gender-based violence on a different level and this is because, as Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw mentioned, the levels of injustices often overlap. Trans women are often left out of the conversation when it comes to gender-based violence for many reasons. In an article by Brooke Taylor, she interviews Abigail Curlew who says that ‘trans women aren’t included because they’re often left out of the very definition of women [...] When a cis person often says ‘woman,’ they mean cis woman as a default.’ Abigail continues to say, ‘it’s not to say that these issues faced by cis women aren’t important and that the outcry from cisgender women after the murder of Sarah Everard wasn’t called for [..] but a population of women were left out’. Trans women often fear reporting gender-based violence because there is an issue with police violence towards trans people.
Similarly, black women are also marginalized when it comes to gender-based violence. In 2015 a former Oklahoma City police officer named Daniel Holtzclaw was convicted of sexual violence. An article written by Maya Finoh and Jasmine Sankofa states that he, ‘specifically targeted low-income Black women because he thought they were less likely to be believed’. They continue to write, ‘because Black women and girls have historically been dehumanized, considered unrapeable, and left without legal recourse, they become easier targets for abuse and are more reluctant to come forward’.
Being an ally and feminist means that you support and look out for all women regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or race. It is not feminism if you only look out for cisgender, heterosexual white women.
Ask yourself if you are going to be part of the problem or part of the solution. Because thinking someone's shorts are too short and victim-blaming makes you part of the problem. Thinking that someone's clothing attracts violence makes you part of the problem. Instead, educate yourself on the injustices women face and how due to intersectionality these injustices are perceived. It should not be too much to ask to not be murdered when walking home.
Image via @featherstoneprints
Written by writer Mehr Lokhandwala