By Jessica Sutton.
Content warning: This article contains graphic details which readers may find distressing.
“Dead women is this thing we’ve all just accepted as part of our daily lives. Dead women is just one of those things. Killed women are not vanishingly rare – killed women are common.” – Labour MP Jess Phillips
On the third of March 2021, Sarah Everard disappeared. She was last seen walking home after spending the evening at a friend’s house in Clapham, south-west London. Just days after International Women’s Day, her body was discovered in a woodland close to her route home. A Police Officer has been arrested and charged with her abduction and murder.
Like so many others, I watched Sarah’s story from the moment it was announced that she was missing. We hoped for her. And now we are grieving for her. The circumstances of Sarah’s death, the fear she must have felt, is heart-breakingly familiar to many women. It is our collective nightmare. And it’s causing an avalanche of female rage in Britain and worldwide.
Women are coming forward to speak out against the global pandemic of male violence.
Others are desperately trying to shift the conversation to one thing: why aren’t women more careful?
Women After Dark
As soon as the news of another missing woman hits the headlines, misogynists waste no time moving responsibility for male violence onto women. Here, Sarah Everard was out after dark. Foolish, right? A woman walking alone at night is asking for trouble. If only she wasn’t so confident, thinking she could walk in her own city, to her own home, without being attacked. Seemingly to prevent further foolishness, women in the area where Sarah was killed have now been warned not to go out alone.
Blaming Sarah for her own death is comfortable. It means men don’t have to do anything. They don’t have to look at their own behaviour, or the behaviour of their male family members and friends. It means governments don’t have to make any structural changes to make public spaces safer. It means women just need to be smarter. We just need to restrict our freedom even further. Stay safe out there, ladies, they tell us.
Of course, the UK is no stranger to the freedoms of women being pushed aside to avoid addressing the violence of men. When the Yorkshire Ripper was in the midst of a murdering spree, women were told to get off the streets before sundown. Now, once again, they are expected to hide at home when it gets dark. If they have to go out, they should get a male friend to walk them home, or get a taxi. Never mind that both of those scenarios could also end in assault or worse. And the culture of victim-blaming makes clear that if anything happens, women have to deal with the consequences. If anything happens, it will be the result of their poor choices.
Policing female behaviour is far easier for governments and law enforcement than focusing on the perpetrators of street harassment and violence. Focusing on the people who inflict violence on women, would mean taking a hard look at men. Men make up the vast majority of perpetrators of gender-based violence. Being accountable for that is something that men, generally, are extremely reluctant to do. So, they perpetuate the myth that women are somehow responsible for preventing male violence.
But what is hitting home for many women, is that Sarah did everything we are taught to do in order to stay safe. Sarah wore a bright green coat (more visible). Sarah called her boyfriend (someone to raise the alarm if you’re attacked). Sarah wore flat shoes (be ready to run). Sarah walked a well-lit path (fewer shadows for men to hide in). Sarah covered up her body (don’t look like you’re asking for it). And still, Sarah was murdered.
Anita Cobby kept to the main streets, before she was tortured, raped, and killed by a group of men.
Aya Maasarwe called her sister, before she was beaten, raped, and murdered by a man.
Jill Meagher walked where it was well-lit, before she was raped and strangled to death by a man.
All of these women were just walking home.
There is nothing women can do to prevent male violence. That is an inconvenient and terrifying fact, but it is the truth. You can follow all of the “rules” passed down through generations of strong but frightened women, and still be harassed, assaulted, or killed. We don’t need to change. Men need to.
The Myth of Rarity
But there’s no need to be afraid of men, we’re told! The Police Commissioner assured us that it’s incredibly rare for a woman to be snatched off the street. A thousand to one chance led Sarah to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And just like every single time before, leaders, media, men, talk about how shocking it all is.
No woman thinks that Sarah’s death is shocking. Horrifying? Heart-breaking? Of course. But not shocking. Women fear violence daily. One in three women have experienced violence worldwide. 97% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed in the UK. 118 women were killed by men in the UK last year. We are afraid in public spaces. We are on edge at work. We are in the most danger at home.
And every few days, every week, every month, we see another face on our news feeds. She has our best friend’s smile, our mother’s expression, our eyes. She could have been someone I love, we think. Could have been me. And next time, it might be.
Our collective anger and grief is overwhelming. What happened to Sarah, and the explosion of emotion in response, should not be a shock to men. If you find the tears, the fear, and the rage of the women around you surprising, you have never listened to the women in your life. You have never talked, really talked, to your mother, your sister, your partner, your friend. If this is a shock to you, your self-involvement is pitiable. Reach out. Understand.
If this is a shock to our elected leaders, then they are unfit to lead. If they are incapable or unwilling to understand the experiences of 50% of the population, then they are not a leader of the people. Women deserve better from those in positions of power. They deserve for their lives to matter. We should not be forced to bear this grief for women whose deaths could be prevented.
Gender-based violence is not a rare “women’s” problem. It never has been. This is a globally entrenched problem with violent men. It is a problem for governments to solve, and above all, it is a problem for men to solve. Not for parents to raise their girls to be more careful. Not for women to add to their endless list of stay home walk with a friend keep keys between your fingers stay where it’s lit dial 111 wear flat shoes be ready to run.
Sarah was careful. And it wasn’t enough to keep her safe. It never is. Women shrink into themselves being careful. We are suffocated with it. We are sick and tired of being scared. We are sick and tired of being shown over and over again that our fear will not protect us. We are sick and tired of the protestations of shock, the candlelit vigils, the flowers being laid, and nothing ever changing.
Sarah, I’m sorry.
Sarah, I wish we had made the world safer for you, and all the women like you.
Sarah, I wish you could know how many women are thinking of you today.
I wish you could know that we are with you.