Recently, women across Australia and around the world took part in Reclaim the Night marches. Reclaim the Night, or Take Back the Night, is a global protest for women to demand the right to live free from sexual violence. Although the marches have historically been organised by and for women, recent years have seen heated debates about the palatability of the event to mainstream audiences, the role of men in the rally, and the relevance of women-only spaces to contemporary feminism.
This year, some Reclaim the Night organising committees sought to engage men in rallies. Others repositioned the march as broader protests against sexual assault. While many feminists regard the involvement of men as essential to the success of the marches, the moves attracted controversy among those who remain attached to the concept of women claiming public spaces as their own. The disputes have played into unresolved debates: Do we still need women-only spaces? What makes a feminist space?
Spaces have historically been defined as either ‘male’ or ‘female’. Although feminists have won greater access to space in recent decades, women have traditionally been identified with private spheres characterised by domesticity and child rearing. Public spaces, characterised by social and political activity, have traditionally been associated with men.
The origins of women-only spaces can be traced to first-wave feminist activity in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when women were forced to meet and organise privately. It was the advent of second wave feminism that saw women-only spaces embraced not as a compulsion, but as a respite from patriarchy and a tool for feminist action. Women claiming spaces, especially public spaces, challenged the norms surrounding the gendered allocation of space.
Many women-only spaces, such as health centres, refuges, and centres against sexual assault, stemmed from necessity. Others were cultural spaces that enabled women to learn about feminism, experience art and music performed by other women, and simply speak with other women about the issues that mattered to them. These safe spaces provided an outlet for feminists to explore issues and ideas away from the influence of patriarchal institutions, and without seeking permission from men.
Research has consistently shown that men, consciously or not, dominate discussion in dual-sex spaces while women, consciously or not, tend to defer to men in decision making. Claiming spaces ensured that women were truly driving the agenda. The strategy also helped to nurture feminist activism, and encouraged a stronger identification among women as women.
The opposition to women-only spaces, both in and outside the feminist movement, is manifold. Many would argue that such spaces have failed to create a safe and inclusive environment for some women – for example, trans women have long fought exclusion for access and recognition within women-only spaces and services. Other opponents of women-only spaces within the feminist movement believe that they are divisive and ultimately serve to marginalise women’s issues. This position has gained momentum in recent years, as many younger feminists have come to view these spaces as exclusionary.
An increasingly common objection to women-only spaces is based on the personal exclusion experienced by men. In mainstream media, it is common to claim that women-only spaces should be opposed, or that men-only spaces should be considered equally legitimate. These attempts to characterise women-only spaces as discriminatory are fiercely contested by many feminists, who believe that they fail to engage with male privilege.
In one way or another, Reclaim the Night events have been at the centre of each of these debates. Debates about whether and how to engage supportive men in the marches arise each year, with each event responding to the issue differently. This year, Sydney’s Reclaim the Night organisers announced that men would participate in the rally but not the march, and the Melbourne event asked those who do not identify as women to absent themselves.
In Canberra, the event was co-moderated by a man for the first time, and went ahead with a theme focused on child sexual abuse.
The theme, ‘Reclaiming Our Streets, Homes, Institutions’, was selected to bring attention to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. At the rally, attendees were told that the decision to invite a man to co-MC was taken because many of those affected by child sexual abuse were boys.
In the weeks since Reclaim the Night, I’ve reflected on the direction of the event globally, and on the question of whether it can remain a women-only space. I met with a member of the Canberra organising committee to discuss how the event is changing.
She sees the focus on claiming public space as just one part of Reclaim the Night’s complex mission. She draws on the words of Tim Bavinton, co-MC of the event, to describe its purpose as ‘refuting the lie’.
‘For me,’ she says, ‘it’s about refuting the lie that you won’t be assaulted if you don’t wear that, if you don’t go down that alley, if you’re in your own home, if you’re a child.
‘Reclaim the Night is growing up in a shifting environment. It isn’t just about claiming public space. It’s also about ending victim-blaming and standing up against sexual assault. Abuse and assault can’t be tolerated either in public or private spaces, and we now know that it often happens within institutions and in the home.’
Interestingly, she believes that maintaining the tradition of a women-led march is critical to the event’s identity (the rally had a man co-MC, but for several years the march been segregated, with women marching at the front). She also understands the discomfort with the theme, but believes that child and adult sexual abuse should not be seen as separate issues. She can cite a plethora of statistics illustrating its impacts on women.
‘Our understandings of sexual violence have evolved since the Reclaim the Night began, but the origins of the event mean that it’s difficult to make it responsive to what we now know is effective in addressing sexual violence. It’s hard to design an event that meets everyone’s needs.’
Of course, she is right – sexual violence is an institutional problem, and most women and girls are assaulted in private spaces by their partners, family members, or friends.
The question of how Reclaim the Night can best address this reality and remain true to its roots is not isolated to Canberra. Globally, organisers are increasingly opting to focus on the event as a protest against sexual violence in all forms. Many have also done away with the traditional women’s only march on the grounds that ending violence involves changing the behaviour of men.
I discussed these trends with Dr Sarah Daly, Chair of the Women’s Health Alliance of Australia. Now based in Adelaide, Daly has had a long association with Take Back the Night committees and collectives in the United States. She told me that she understands the rationale for changes, but expressed discomfort with the way the event has been evolving.
‘Part of the power of Take Back the Night was that it recognised that sexual violence is structural, not just behavioural,’ she told me. ‘The movement needs to focus on patriarchal institutions, not just the behaviour of men as individuals.’
For Daly, the dilemma is symptomatic of debates within many of the women’s organisations and services that she has been involved in.
‘Increasingly, women’s services, centres and advocacy groups are focusing on improving the lives of women and their families at the expense of broader social and political goals. Obviously, personal health, lifestyle, and single-issue campaigns and programs are critical to improving the status of women, but these need be pursued within a broader political agenda.’
She sees the struggle for space as critical to this agenda.
‘There are good reasons why the fight for space and visibility has been a major concern for the women’s movement. Women claiming public spaces as their own can advance issues that matter to women in a way that places them in a broader political context. As a form of activism, it also has real liberatory impact.’
Daly’s passion about claiming space underscores why many women, especially the generation of feminists that grew up with the first iterations of Reclaim the Night, feel they have such a stake in the event. Reclaim the Night came about not simply to protest sexual violence, but to highlight the role that the fear of sexual violence plays in limiting women’s access to space, visibility, and power.
In a patriarchy, men and women do not share the same entitlement to space. Women are told, and often believe, that they cannot go where men can go or do what men can do without the threat of violence. Reclaim the Night rejected this wisdom – refuted the lie – and told women that space is theirs to claim.
Reclaim the Night and other women-only spaces are also grounded in the premise that women don’t need to adhere to patriarchal standards of behaviour to gain access to space, or seek permission from men to raise share their experiences. For many women, this is an important element of Reclaim the Night.
Outside women-only spaces, the priorities of women tend to be treated as minority concerns and are forced to compete with other issues for visibility. While feminist spaces can include men, it is women-only spaces that are uniquely placed to prioritised the perspectives of women and allow their concerns to be privileged over others. This is at the heart of the discomfort with the theme selected by the Canberra organising committee – standing up to gendered sexual violence against women became indistinguishable from other priorities.
Obviously all forms of sexual violence must be condemned, and the exploitation of children is particularly abhorrent. Selecting this theme and capitalising on the profile of the Royal Commission may have brought the Canberra event to a new audience, but it must be recognised that this came at a cost. Conflating the issues meant that Reclaim the Night failed to recognise the role of violence in structurally disempowering women. If we can’t recognise this at Reclaim the Night, where does that leave us?
So where does all of this leave the participation of men?
For all the contention, Tim Bavinton was ultimately a respectful and thoughtful presence at the Canberra rally. As the Director of Sexual Health and Family Planning ACT, nobody could doubt the relevance of his expertise to the event’s theme – but that isn’t the point.
The reality is that it’s become rare to find Reclaim the Night events that have remained entirely women-only. It is understandable that organising committees and collectives have wanted to include men who recognise how they have been privileged by patriarchal structures, and are still prepared to challenge them. This tension exists in all social movements where privileged groups have attempted to contribute and show their support.
My own view is that men can show their support for the women’s movement in a variety of ways, but ultimately, they do not have an entitlement to attend Reclaim the Night. They are being invited in, and this means accepting that they will participate on women’s terms. I think this means accepting, at a minimum, that there will be a women-only organising committee, and that men will not be given platforms as speakers at the rally. There are also models that preserve the tradition of the women-only march while involving men in other ways – the Sydney model, for example, which went ahead with a women-only march and an inclusive rally, or the women-led march held in Canberra. But the contestability of each of these ideas highlights the need for broader debate within the movement about the principles underpinning the involvement of men.
Regardless of how Reclaim the Night evolves in the coming years, women-only spaces, and women claiming spaces, will remain important to feminism. In the health and services context, they provide opportunities for women to escape cycles of violence and poverty. In the social and cultural context, they enable women to express themselves in a supportive environment. And in the context of feminist activism, they are places that cultivate women’s empowerment. But the most important aspect of these safe spaces is the channel that they provide for women to explore, develop, and refine their ideas away from the influence of patriarchal structures – and do so in a way that directly challenges them.