TW: sexual assault/harassment. Yesterday I published a blog post dedicated to Sarah Everard, who should never have been condemned to history so early. Sarah Everard was kidnapped and murdered, the defendant charged being a serving Metropolitan Police Officer. She was 33 years old. She was just walking home from seeing her friend. She did everything she was supposed to do to keep herself safe and it wasn’t enough. I can’t imagine the grief felt by those who loved her, and I can’t help but wonder what she still had left to achieve and experience if she had just been allowed to live.
My blog and the related insta posts had an overwhelmingly positive response and were shared and engaged with more than any of my previous content. I did not expect my private rant to have such a wide reach, but it echoes the sentiments felt across the world right now. Sarah Everard’s death has prompted an outpouring of grief, anger, and solidarity from women across the country (and beyond) who are sharing their experiences of sexual violence and harassment. Just a few days before Sarah’s murder, it was announced that 97% of UK women have experienced sexual harassment. No woman is surprised by this. In fact, I wonder who these lucky 3% are. I could share my own experiences, because there are a lot, but I’d rather share my despair, my frustration, and my bloody exhaustion that women are still having to fight for the right to walk safely down the street.
On Saturday night, a vigil was held for Sarah Everard, and the photos of women being manhandled from the scene by police (especially given the circumstances of Sarah’s death) made me sick to my stomach.
The first thing that struck me about these images were that they were so reminiscent of the suffragette protests of the early 20th century – showing that nothing has been learned in 100 years. On 18 November 1910, 300 women marched to the Houses of Parliament as part of their campaign to secure voting rights for women. The day became known as “Black Friday” owing to the violence inflicted on protesters, by the Police and male bystanders. Police arrested 4 men and 115 women, although the following day all charges were dropped. If you google Black Friday, you can find many photos like this one below of the police using heavy handed tactics to “apprehend” suffragettes. If you google Sarah Everard Vigil on 14th March 2021, you’ll find pretty much the same.
While I understand that this vigil was technically illegal given Covid restrictions, to see police physically manhandling peaceful protestors when just last week hundreds of (majority male) football fans were allowed to gather, destroy public property and generally wreak havoc with police protection actually makes me want to cry. If that doesn’t scream police bias and male privilege I don’t know what does. If you, like me, have seen the selfies of officers smiling alongside male Rangers fans, I’m sure you share my indignation at the dual standards held to the male and female crowds. Both groups were breaching Covid regulations but one was causing considerably more public mayhem and the difference in police approaches (albeit by different forces) were striking.
Since publishing my post, new laws have been announced mandating that protestors or those defacing statues will now face up to 5 years longer in prison than rapists. That this should be announced in a week that has highlighted so painfully that women remain second class citizens in this country, and on a day when police prejudice against women is more transparent than ever, this seems a clear statement from the UK Government that they have chosen a side, and it is not the side of women.
My history blog is a testament to the millennia of women who have changed the world in remarkable ways, and who have won us the rights we often take for granted. But today I want to acknowledge ALL women (including trans women who face a whole other level of discrimination) who have to silently fight every day just to feel safe, to automatically adjust their behaviour in an attempt to protect themselves from men knowing that it still might not be enough, knowing that we cannot even rely on the police for protection.
Investigations have, at least, been launched into the Met’s handling of this week’s events. But looking back at the pictures from 111 years ago, it is hard to have believe that lessons will be learnt this time, when a century of hindsight was not enough for real social change. We can but hope.