Perhaps it was because women were holding onto whatever was left of their access to public space due to pandemic lockdowns. Perhaps it was because, after more than three years of the #MeToo movement, police and society are still asking women to sacrifice their freedoms for a little bit of temporary security.
It all came to the surface when 33-year-old Sarah Everard, who disappeared when she went home in London on March 3, was found dead a week later after doing everything she was supposed to do. She took a longer path that was well lit and populated. She wore bright clothes and shoes that she could walk into. She checked in with her boyfriend to let him know when she would be leaving. But that wasn’t enough to save her life.
The reaction of British women to reports that police went door to door telling women in the south London neighborhood where she had disappeared to stay indoors for their own safety turned into a wave of anger and frustration.
It has sparked a social movement that feels somehow different from the previous ones: women from all walks of life are demanding security from male violence – and demanding that the police, government and men jointly bear the burden of ensuring it.
“Arrest Your Own”
“Hey sir, take your hands off my sister!” The crowd sang as police grabbed women while they tried to disperse the vigil for Ms. Everard, a marketing manager, in a park in Clapham, south London, Saturday night.
“Arrest your own!” Hundreds of people screamed, an indication of the Police officer charged with the murder of Ms. Everard. “Police, go home!”
When officials trampled the flowers on a makeshift memorial to Ms. Everard and knocked shocked young women to the ground, the London Metropolitan Police could hardly have been a better example of what women were protesting if they had made a deliberate decision to do so.
In the days following Ms. Everard’s disappearance, a group called Reclaim These Streets announced that there would be a vigil in a park in south London on Saturday night. The event was intended partly to mourn and partly to protest the police’s instructions to women to stay home for their own safety and to demand safer streets instead.
But “The Met”, as the London police are called, again asked the women to stay at home. Citing blocking restrictions, the police threatened heavy fines if the vigil was not canceled.
Eventually the organizers surrendered and pulled out of the event, partly because they couldn’t stand the thought that their fines would subsidize the very police they were protesting against, said Mary Morgan, a body politics writer and scholar who is one of the the original organizers of the event. “It makes my stomach rot,” she said in an interview.
Recognition…Municipal Police, via Agence France-Presse – Getty Images
Regardless of the Met’s internal deliberations, the message it sent to women across the country was that the police were doubling down to restrict women’s freedom rather than men’s violence.
“@Metpoliceuk really wants women off the street, doesn’t it?” Anne Lawtey, 64, wrote on Twitter after organizers announced the cancellation of the gathering. She was shocked, she said in a phone interview, that it had been closed. “We can’t have a vigil? People standing still in a park wearing masks? “
Even so, it turned out to be a huge crowd carrying candles and bouquets of flowers, crocus bulbs in jars, and pansy seedlings to add to the flower cluster.
With no audio equipment, women climbed the Victorian bandstand, which had become a makeshift memorial, and used an Occupy Wall Street-style human microphone: the crowd repeated what was said so that it could be heard in the back.
“The police are trying to silence us, the police are trying to suppress us,” hundreds repeated in unison. “The police said we can’t have a vigil to remember Sarah Everard. The police have the courage to threaten us. The police have the courage to intimidate us. “
Then louder: “WE. SAY. NO.”
Being a woman means “negotiating all the time,” wrote author and columnist Nesrine Malik in her book “We Need New Stories”.
Ms. Everard’s disappearance drew attention to the terms of a security deal so ubiquitous that many women may never have seen it that to be safe from male violence, they must make the “right” choices. And if a woman does not do this, her fate is her own fault.
Online women shared the details of their side of this business. What they were wearing. Where they went. Who they checked in with before they left and after they got home. If they went out alone or with other women or men.
Some have considered their own close conversations. 26-year-old Nosisa Majuqwana, an advertising producer living in East London, told her friends, “Thank god I was wearing sneakers, thank God I was carrying a backpack.” That night when a strange man came upon her on a deserted path came up, she took out a knife and told her to be quiet. “You would never go home in London in heels.”
But Ms. Everard’s death caused Ms. Majuqwana and many others to immediately turn down the deal.
“It doesn’t matter what women do,” said Ms. Morgan. “We can be hypervigilant, we can take all the precautions we have been taught since childhood.”
The murder “shocked people to accept that it is normal” to make those compromises, said Anna Birley, an economic policy researcher and local politician in south London who also worked on organizing the Reclaim These Streets event. “Every woman can see herself in this situation.”
Who should sacrifice?
Why does the burden of women’s safety lie more on women than on men, who engage in most of the violence against them?
“Women’s freedoms are seen as expendable, available – very much like, tragically, sometimes women themselves,” said Kate Manne, professor of philosophy at Cornell University and author of two books on the way sexism shapes society, in an interview. “There is only one immediate assumption that men’s lives are not materially affected,” so they cannot be asked to make sacrifices to change it.
As women play an increasing role in public life, the differences have become clear and painful. The #MeToo movement found that many women have left their jobs or entire industries to avoid predators like Harvey Weinstein – with the result that their perpetrators have been able to harm other women for decades.
Women in abusive relationships are often directed to simply ditch their abusive partners, but are often exposed to the worst of violence if they attempt to do so.
Sometimes the calculation is more subtle, but the collective impact is still significant.
A working paper by Girija Borker, a researcher at the World Bank, found that women in India were willing to go to far worse colleges and pay more tuition fees in order to avoid harassment or abuse on their daily commute to class. The impact of this “choice” on a woman can be difficult to measure – but among the thousands she has documented in her research, it can be expected to have an impact on income, economic strength, and social mobility.
But British women’s anger is starting to change assumptions about who should make sacrifices for safety.
Jenny Jones, a baroness and colleague of the Greens, proposed at the House of Lords last week that there be a 6pm curfew for men following the disappearance of Ms. Everard. She later made it clear that this was not a very serious suggestion and told UK Sky News: “Nobody makes a fuss when, for example, the police suggest that women stay at home. But when I suggest it, men are in the arms. “
When asked about the proposal, Mark Drakeford, the first minister for Wales, said in an interview with the BBC that a male curfew was “not high on our list” but could be considered in certain circumstances. (He later made it clear that the Welsh government was not considering such a measure.)
Focused on the police
The requirement for men to make changes has grown in importance. But the police have also been hit hard by public anger. And when photos were circulated of women arrested and abused by police officers after the Clapham vigil on Saturday night, anger grew.
“It is so angry that this is not the first time the city police have abandoned women on such a large scale,” said Ms. Majuqwana.
She said she also spoke from personal experience. A few years ago, she said, a man grabbed her arm and then slapped her face with a glass bottle when she refused his advances. But when the police arrived, they said there was nothing they could do if she didn’t want to be arrested too for admitting to repulsing her attacker in self-defense.
Sisters Uncut, a feminist group that encouraged women to go to the park even after the official Reclaim These Streets event was canceled, also announced a protest on Sunday, this time in front of police headquarters.
“The police are perpetrators of individual and state violence against women – as was shown last night,” the group wrote on Twitter, adding: “4 pm. New Scotland Yard.”