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Article
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Activism
Politics

Reclaiming the night

Last night I went to see Top Girls, Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play about the differences between liberal and socialist feminism, about having children or feeling nothing for the ones you had, about careers and Thatcher. My partner joked that the take-home message of the play was, ‘It sucks to be a woman.’

Then this morning, we woke to the news that overnight a man was charged with the rape and murder of Jill Meagher. It’s a horrible story. And even though I know people go missing every single day, this was a story I followed closely all week. How was it possible – in Brunswick – that a woman couldn’t walk less than a kilometre to her home, even when it was dark, even when she was alone?

Sydney Road is an area I know well. I was at the Cornish Arms on Saturday night. When I lived in Lygon Street, there were countless times I too walked those streets alone and at night.

It is depressing that only a couple of weeks after SlutWalk (but years after the Reclaim the Night marches and many waves of feminism), we still have to reiterate that women should be able to walk the streets at night. Women, in fact, should be able to walk and dress and drink and think as they please, just as men can, without being targeted as victims or provocateurs.

These sexist partitions that try to curb the behaviours of women, to make them less of a red flag, are not only depressing; they are enraging.

But the circumstances surrounding Jill Meagher’s death are rare. In cases of sexual violence in Australia, women know the perpetrator more than 80 per cent of the time. And for women from their teens to their mid-40s in Victoria, partner violence is the most common cause of preventable death. And these are just the numbers we know of. Only a small percentage of women even report rape in Victoria, perhaps because fewer than one in six end with prosecution.

So we should be wary of accepting the illusion that we’d be safer with more police walking the streets, or more police scrutinising the lives and pastimes of women. More police on the streets, which is historically what the Reclaim the Night marches called for, won’t change the above statistics. It won’t change attitudes to women either: a heavily policed community doesn’t eradicate sexism and misogyny. Besides, it was a police officer’s shaming of women that triggered SlutWalk in the first place.

More police on the street is not going to make women safer. In actual fact, history shows that more police on the streets makes the vulnerable in our communities a lot less safe.

Oh, and it doesn’t suck to be a woman; it just sucks to be in a world where you have to constantly fight to be seen as fully human, with all the rights that entails.

Jacinda Woodhead is Overland’s deputy editor. She is in the midst of a PhD project about abortion in Australia and nonfiction as political intervention.

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Comments

  1. Dear Jacinda, I agree it doesn’t suck to be a woman, and its good to be reminded how wrong that statement is. I don’t have a problem with your assertion that more police will not lessen these incidents, but you don’t give us your thoughts on what will. What actions need to be put in place to make our streets safer – for everyone? I think its important if you’re going to denounce one option, you need to put forward another one.
    But we all need to think about this. How do we teach children to walk the streets proudly?
    How do we raise daughters who will not be ashamed to be themselves in public and in private?
    How do we, as adult women learn walk in the world believing that it belongs to us? Because it does.
    How do we begin to understand the real basis of power and dis-empowerment. Have we understood yet that rape is never about sexual attraction, and all about power imbalance? How de we touch our sons to see their sisters and female friends as individuals and not an object they have a right to grab or claim when they see it.
    Can we work as a community, or a number of linked communities, to change our divided thinking and attitudes towards gender education?
    These are the questions we must all look hard at, and prioritise if we are to truly change social behaviour.

    • Thanks for your comments, Wahibe.

      Truthfully, I don’t think there is an easy answer, because I think it’s to do with deeply embedded sexism and this kind of violence can be one of the ways that manifests.

      We know the causes of the majority of violence against women, the violence that takes place in the home, and they’re not things policing can resolve: economic pressures, lack of childcare, domestic pressures, unemployment, etc, all those disempowering factors.

      For the other situations, I agree that the calling out sexist, violent and callous behaviour is important. And I think it could be coupled with watching out for each other a bit more. This is difficult to put into concrete terms or metrics, and I’m not suggesting we should be intervening whenever we see people arguing in the street, but I do think we could take a bit more responsibility for the welfare of others.

      Today I read that in the US in publishing, women editors are earning $15,000 less than their male counterparts – in other words, despite doing the same job, women are still not considered equal to men. These forms of discrimination are all connected, although the expressions vary.

      And that’s really my point. Just look at the way the media and the police apportion blame when women are victims of violence and sexual assault – we even witnessed it in this very case – and tell me it isn’t connected to the callous disregard for and devaluing of the lives of women more generally.

  2. I remember many years ago someone I knew (a long-term prisoner jailed for bank robbery in Jika Jika) told me that there was no way to prevent this kind of opportunistic crime, that it was just a case of someone being in the wrong place, near the wrong person, at the wrong time. In other words, the worst of bad luck. His rather grim conclusion was that some people shouldn’t be allowed out in society, and deserved only to be executed. It’s true that it’s the rarest, if the most nightmarish, of scenarios in the larger picture of sexual assault, and that more police on the street won’t make any difference.

    My particular anxieties around this revolve around my daughter, and they are complex: I don’t want to reinforce fear, I have always encouraged her to be independent, and at the same time, I don’t want to her be hurt. How do we negotiate that, seriously? “Don’t be the unlucky one…” As she told me this morning, she doesn’t wear heels (and neither do I) in case she needs to run. And what does it mean, if you’re thinking you need to be able to run away from men? Should she carry mace? There’s no doubt that most women, especially most young women, in Melbourne are now afraid in a way they weren’t before, because it reminds us that no area is “safe”, and Jill Meagher’s murder gives fodder to all the old cautions. I’m all for Reclaim the Night, but I can’t help reflecting that it would make absolutely no difference to the men who might commit this kind of crime. I guess it’s how a crime like this unfolds in a wider situation of insecurity that gives pause. Because staying home, abandoning the streets, being “safe”, would in fact make things worse…

  3. I don’t have the answers. I’d happily join a march down every road and byway, banging pots and reclaiming the night. But I can’t see that working on/in the mind of the sort of person who commits acts like those reported overnight.

    It’s incomprehensible and awful and unbearable for Mrs Meagher’s loved ones.

    Does it start with calling behaviour when we see it, hear it or experience it, wherever that may be?

    I don’t know.

  4. ‘I can’t help reflecting that it would make absolutely no difference to the men who might commit this kind of crime.’

    I agree. Except that, in the unlikely event that this sort of discussion made in onto their radar at all, and they understood any of it, it probably would make a small difference; it would make them hate and resent the sorts of women who have these sorts of conversations even more than they already do. Don’t forget how much of rape is a desire to humiliate and claim or reclaim power. You have only to turn up to a Slutwalk gathering and look at the lurking, narrow-eyed blokes hanging round on the margins in little groups. They’ve come because they think it means they will see some sluts.

    • Kerryn, I totally agree with you! It reminds me of those domestic violence adds which were aimed at the victims- trying to “educate” people as to what constitutes violence that shouldn’t be tolerated when the reality is that many victims of domestic violence will be repeatedly affected AND they often lack adequate support networks around them (family, friends, financial etc) which gives them the option of resisting this kind of violence. Many victims are weak to begin with because they lack important resources- and they are likely to suffer from depressive illnesses or have substance abuse issues themselves. Police fail to protect victims in many cases of domestic violence (Even children), and all campaigns seem to target VICTIMS as though they should be responsible for resisting violence. If it is a desire to “reclaim power” then maybe we should be looking at patterns in domestic violence and looking at why this behavior occurs in the first place. It also reinforces the illusion that victims of violence have enough social agency to resist that sort of treatment.

  5. Oh Kerryn, your last sentence gave me goosebumps, in a bad way. Sadly, Alison is right, there is no protection against the random predator. The Boys, and the terrifying cases of Anita Cobby and Janine Balding, rammed that message home.

    Back when I was a weeny thing in Hobart in the late 80s I went to my first Reclaim the Night March. For us the tragic icon was Amanda Carter, who was murdered in 1980 on her way home from a night out by a taxi driver (everyone said, for the murder was unsolved).

    I was a uni student and walked everywhere, but remember frequently being scared at the random violence of the night. For me at that time Reclaim the Night was not about thinking the march could stop a predator, but about telling the world that we didn’t feel safe and we need to and the world can help.

    I’m not so sure these days about how it can help. A start is calling out bad behaviour, when it starts, whether it be in child or man. The people who do these things don’t just become that overnight, do they? They build up from small acts of cruelty, to animals or other people, don’t they? I’m too much of a wet liberal to ever say rehabilitation can’t work, but it can be applied earlier, surely?

  6. Thanks, Jacinda, for broaching this tender subject. It’s mysterious that sometimes the experience of one person does galvanise the wider community in grief and in concern. Deep condolences to all for whom this story is so much more than the catalyst for discussion – such heartache.

    Unless the police force is fundamentally transformed to be a a wiser, more equitable, less punitive organisation whose only priority is protecting the rights of individuals and communities rather than strong-arming for the materialist/economic self-interest of the neo-liberal state, I agree that ‘more policing’ is not in the overall best interests of women, nor will it make us safer on the streets of Brunswick.

    How to address the pathological human being, those men so ill and wounded as to be a mortal danger not only to women but also to other men, and the deep systemic misogyny that underpins our society? I fear my theories are too idealistic even to articulate. Where ever we are going as a species, we have surely lost our way. I certainly doubt the police are capable of setting us straight.

  7. Women reclaiming the streets at night could occur only if there was a questioning of assumptions and a re-evaluation of cultural values: for example, police issuing warnings against men, rather than women, going out at night. This won’t happen (it would make the streets safer for women though) and serves to demonstrate the current hypocrisy of seeing safety on the streets as a woman’s problem, as well as the guilt by association that occurs through somehow implicating all men in criminal behaviour whenever a woman disappears at night.

  8. The march – and I cannot wait to part of a huge group of women walking down Sydney Rd – is about the women feeling empowered. Yes, it will not change the minds of violent predatory men, and it may enrage them further, but the march is about the women feeling it is their street, that they can proclaim their right to be there in the dark. It might also have an impact on other men – not the most extreme cases – who often in smaller and more insidious ways think that women are theirs for the ‘taking’.

  9. I suspect SMH article is probably true but I would like to see some peer-reviewed research on police visibility & perceptions/experience of public safety rather than just assertions that ‘history shows’.

    • Yes. One of the links above is from googling ‘police officer raped woman’. I was thinking earlier that it must be one of the most under-reported crimes.

  10. Yes, and when they are reported, you need to assume that the people you report these sorts of crimes to aren’t corrupt. And there has been a lot of controversy about that…And there aren’t enough laws which protect women who do report these sorts of things. And for those that do, they may need to relay horrific details to a forty year old male police officer who has very different ideas about what constitutes rape and what does not. Hmm.

    On another note, I jsut read a great one liner in the Saturday age. Admist the comments from friends and loved ones, one reads “It as just lucky that my cameras did catch those images” (in relate to Meagher). Hmm.

  11. Thank you for writing about this Jacinda. It’s so hard to muster words. I’m continually astonished that your closing remark continues to be true. How long will we have to fight this fight? As long as it takes, I guess. I am enraged.

  12. ‘Random acts of violence can not be prevented by anything’. That is why they are called ‘random’.
    I have a teenage daughter and know that nothing I do can keep her 100% safe – anywhere.

    What I wonder is why do so many in society seem so shocked when these random events happen? They DO happen.
    Of the statistics you quote – seems much MORE distressing to me that 80% of women are attacked and/or murdered by those they KNOW. Why do we not see marches in the streets for THOSE women? Or is it simply too difficult for most people to face the fact that ‘random acts of violence’ are occurring every single day behind the nice picket fences of so so many homes in Brunswick, Fairfield, Kew… every single suburb in Melbourne, and every city in this country – and that any one, or many of these could and do end in murder if only the tiniest chance and random event’goes the tiniest bit ‘too far’?

    None of this lessens in any way the tragedy of this particular event, but I find it sad that it is an event like this that is NOT the ‘norm’ of the violence that women experience in our society that seems to elicit the greatest outrage. The perpetrator in this instance has been caught and will be punished severely for his crime.

    It is extremely distressing that so so many ‘perpetrators’ are allowed by our society to continue to terrorise their victims with little fear of any retribution, public or societal condemnation at all. While this remains the case, there is no hope the deeply entrenched misogyny in our society will ever be eradicated.

  13. I agree — there’s a sad kneejerk tendency to only react to violence that falls outside of the “normal” pattern, when the “normal” pattern is arguably a much bigger problem…
    Like Heath Ledger’s Joker says, with unusual honesty for a Chris Nolan movie: (I’m paraphrasing) “If I announce that tomorrow a gangbanger is going to get shot, or a humvee of soldiers is going to get blown up, nobody panics — because it’s all part of the plan.”

    It’s kind of what John Dolan calls the “background level” of violence — which societies are disturbingly proficient at normalising.

    I think one reason so many rapes go unreported may be because of conflicting loyalties — it’s definitely easier, I’m sure, to dob in a stranger who rapes you in an alley, than, say, a partner or a family member. When it’s someone you might be emotionally attached to, I can’t imagine it’s easy to report them for a crime that will likely see them imprisoned + get them a permanent criminal record. And that’s before threats, conscious emotional blackmail by the perpetrator… (Of course, it’s essential to have well-funded resources available even for women who decide not to report the assaults — so they don’t feel completely isolated even if they choose not to make it a police matter, or are under duress not to involve the law…)
    And maybe society needs to reconsider the old adage that blood is thicker than water — let’s not forget also that it was completely legal for husbands in the US to rape their wives until, I think, the 1980s. We still have an uncomfortable tendency to equate the family unit with safety…

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