On Saturday evening, this is what I am going to be doing, marching through the streets of London with women in the Amnesty International local Islington and Hackney group to ‘Take Back the Night.’I recall my first experience with this event at Hope College over seven years ago. There were clotheslines of t-shirts made by women who had suffered violence or been raped or who were close to someone who had. There was a candle light vigil and a women only walk through campus. This is what I remember. The pain and suffering as well as the courage and strength in the face of each woman, in the message on each t-shirt.
Back then, I hadn’t had any experiences with violence against women. But after Katie’s attack, I seem to have taken it upon myself to get as involved as possible to help stop violence against women.
Below is an article about the March I will be attending with over 1000 women on Satuday as well as a brief history of where it originated in Britain. I’ve included the link to the site as well as the complete article.
Marching to freedom
Thirty years after the first Reclaim the Night march, the event is now being revived by a new generation of young women who are speaking out against violence. Julie Bindel reports
Wednesday November 22, 2006
In 1977, when the first Reclaim the Night march was held in Leeds, I was just 15 and remember watching it on the news with a growing sense of excitement and political conviction. The Yorkshire Ripper was still terrorising the north of England and the police had been advising that, to avoid attack, women should stay inside after dark. The march responded directly to this warning (placards read “No curfew on women – curfew on men”) and hundreds of women shouted about their anger at being kept off the streets – the supposedly public highways, after all – by the threat of male violence. Marches occurred simultaneously in 12 English locations, from Manchester to Soho.
And the marches continued for more than a decade, becoming a fixture in towns and cities worldwide (in the US they termed them Take Back the Night) before the British version fizzled out in the 90s.
It wasn’t until 2004 that a group of women decided to revive the event. That first year wasn’t hugely promising, just 30 women turning up to march through the London streets. The following year, though, numbers swelled to almost 1,000 women. And this Saturday – the International Day to End Violence Against Women – well over 1,000 women are expected to troop through the capital, starting at Trafalgar Square and ending at the University of London Union on Malet Street. There will also be marches in Oxford, Cornwall, Cardiff and Leeds. Organisers say they have been inundated with inquiries from all over the country.
And despite regular pronouncements that feminist activism has long since curled up and died, that it has become a turn-off and an irrelevance to young women more interested in glamour modelling, the Reclaim the Night movement is being spearheaded and bolstered by younger women. The woman largely responsible for Reclaim the Night’s revival, for instance, is 29-year-old Finn Mackay, a long-time political activist and founder of the London Feminist Network (LFN), a women-only networking and campaigning organisation. Why did she decide it was time to renew these street protests? “I think women have had enough misogyny and violence, and young women are aware of the early feminist battles and know they are far from won,” she says.
She has a point. In Britain, it is estimated that one in two women will experience domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking during their lifetime, and rape convictions are at an all-time low – just 5.6% of all reported rapes end in a conviction. Every week, two women die at the hands of a former or current partner and new cases of child sexual abuse are reported weekly.
And the idea that women should protect themselves by staying inside after dark seems to carry as much weight as ever. Recent coverage about women being “irresponsible” if they drink to excess and then report rape has given the distinct impression that the streets are only safe for very well-behaved, sober women, and then only if they venture out in daylight hours. Police still routinely warn women to “be careful” when out late at night, an approach that puts the onus on women to protect themselves, rather than pinpointing their would-be attackers. (It’s strange, isn’t it, that if a man is physically attacked on the streets after dark, there is never any question of blaming him or branding him irresponsible?) A recent survey in a magazine aimed at young women found that only 5% of women feel safe on the streets at night. Two thirds admitted they worry about being raped, and almost half said that on occasion they choose not to go out because they fear for their own safety.
Growing up with a feminist mother, Rebecca Mordan, a 30-year-old actor, spent many weekends as a child at Greenham Common peace camp and was influenced by older generations of protesters. “I was a feminist from four years old,” she says, “and refused to play with Barbie dolls because of that.”
As an adult, Mordan became involved in feminist activism when she “got fed up with the so-called ironic rise in ‘laddism'”. Tired of seeing sexualised images of women and children within popular culture, and particularly those featured in magazines for young men, such as Nuts and Zoo, she began to feel “unsafe around men”.
“I remember someone saying to me, ‘If you go out on the town, you have to expect to get your tits grabbed,” says Mordan. “I couldn’t believe it. We are supposed to have made progress, but sexual assault was being seen as inevitable.”
Gemma Ellis, 28, a children’s charity worker, has been “passionate about women’s rights” since primary school. At university she did her dissertation on child sexual abuse and prostitution, but became inspired to campaign against sexual violence when she volunteered for the organisation that stages the one-woman play, the Vagina Monologues. There she heard about the 2005 Reclaim the Night march and decided to go along.
“I was with a friend who had been arguing with me about pole dancing, saying it was empowering for women,” she says, “but after the march, having spoken to several inspiring young feminists, she changed her mind.” The friend has since become an active campaigner against male violence.
Ellis says that she is constantly persuading her friends that it is “OK to be a feminist”, disabusing them of the stereotype of man-hating, hairy lesbians. “What’s wrong with hairy lesbians?” Mackay interrupts with a sardonic glint.
The women on the 1977 march were visibly angry, shaking their fists at men, demanding they “get off the streets”. Will the women on the march this year be as angry? “I would love to be able to say no,” says Ellis, “but the truth is, I face at least one major irritation every day, whether it is the sight of pornography on TV or some stupid comment from a man.”
What do they think puts some women off the type of radical feminism these women subscribe to? “This false notion of choice, which is increasingly used to justify the oppression of women,” says Ellis. “We are constantly told that prostitution is a positive choice for women, as is wearing the veil and becoming a lap dancer. Feminists are accused of denying those ‘choices’ to women.” Rather, she says, only feminism offers women the choice of liberation and equality.
The organisers say that most of those on Saturday’s march will not have been directly involved in feminist campaigning before. What about the accusations of man-hating that are often levied at women who rage against men’s violence to women? The table erupts in protest. “Men are the ones raping, beating and killing and yet we are accused of hate?” says Mackay.
Although the march is women-only, men are welcome at the Reclaim the Right to Party rally afterwards, which includes live music, DJs and dancing. “Feminists do fun really well,” says Mordan. “The image of the humourless feminist is far from the truth.”
The London march is not the only one planned for Saturday. Events to mark International Day to end Violence against Women are being held from Scotland to Devon, and in many countries worldwide. In the two years since its formation, the LFN, the main organiser of the march, has achieved much, and members are energised rather than jaded. Last year it organised protests against the screening of the pornographic film Deep Throat, worked with Trades Unions to encourage good practice in dealing with harassment in the workplace, and is planning a major feminist film festival for next year.
As the final preparations for the march get underway, Mordan tells me she is looking forward to seeing, “some of the most famous roads in London being closed for us women, so that everyone around will be forced to take notice of what we are demanding”.
For Mackay, today’s radical feminism amounts to basic common sense. “I believe the march will grow and grow,” she says. “I want to see double the number of marchers next year, and double that the year after. By focusing that anger constructively, together as women, there are no limits to what we could achieve”.
*Reclaim The Night 2006, Saturday November 25, assembling in Trafalgar Square (next to Nelson’s Column) at 6pm for women-only march.