Why do Women STILL Have to ‘Reclaim the Night’?

If you live in the Hyde Park area, chances are you’ve been warned about muggings, burglaries, and even vicious attacks by mysterious figures. If you’re a woman, it’s likely that you’ve been encouraged by friends and family to buy a rape alarm, not wear earphones at night and to never travel alone through Woodhouse Moor. The list of precautions goes on and on. Despite being less likely to be victims of crime than men, statistics show that women tend to fear crime significantly more than men.

Reclaim the Night is a movement which started here in Leeds in 1977. The marches involve demanding women’s safety at night and protesting violence towards women. The protesting started as a result of police encouraging women not to go out at night after the Yorkshire Ripper murders, which many labelled ‘victim-blaming’. Much of the discourse around stranger violence towards women seems to focus on encouraging women to alter their behaviour to reduce their chances of being a victim rather than addressing why such violence happens. As a young woman who fears being out in the dark on my own, I decided to go along to a Reclaim the Night march on a Saturday evening to join fellow women in protest. The reactions we got from the public made it clear why, 40 years on, we still have to protest this issue.

The march started at Leeds Town Hall. Emily Dean, an organiser of the event, reported that the turnout was smaller than the 2017 march. However, it was still an improvement from 2018, when a march didn’t happen at all.  Although there weren’t a lot of us it was still comforting to see any kind of support for the cause. We began to move through the city centre, and within the first five minutes it became obvious the night was going to be challenging. Our chants and placards were drawing a lot of attention, both positive and negative. One man attempted to drown us out by chanting ‘Nando’s’ repeatedly. Whether his aim was to mock us, impress his friends, or simply to express his craving for some peri-peri chicken at that exact moment, was unclear. However, to me, childishly shouting the name of a restaurant over a group of strong women trying to raise awareness about a serious issue isn’t particularly funny or clever. I was also surprised at some of the names we got called, in particular ‘slags’ and ‘stupid’. I couldn’t really understand what was so promiscuous about a group of women covered head to toe in winter gear on a freezing Saturday night, or what was so unintelligent about being aware of the scary reality of unsafe streets. Perhaps they thought that saying these things would make the scary women go away. If anything, it made us chant even louder.

Image by Michelle Ding

Whilst these negative reactions were disheartening, I didn’t feel scared until we came across a group of middle-aged men near Millennium Square. One of them shouted at us aggressively, and this is word-for-word, ‘I’ll bash your heads in’. No, he wasn’t joking, and yes, he might have been drunk. But does this excuse him? Of course not. A man, probably twice my age and stature, had just threatened to physically assault a group of young women for protesting exactly what he was threatening. I found it completely incomprehensible that someone could find issue with women wanting to feel safe at night. The fact that violence against women is wrong is not debatable. So why do so many men have a problem with it?

I’ve been trying to think of reasons as to why we got some of the negative reactions we did. As a sociology student, it’s kind of impossible not to ask ‘why?’ about every little thing every five seconds, so bear with me. I assume the immature reactions were down to men wanting to impress their friends, a kind of toxic masculinity that promotes laddish, macho behaviour over social awareness. The more violent reactions, I assume, were either a result of fear, sexism or both combined. These men probably weren’t used to women being loud and standing up for themselves. They might have been scared that their previously unchecked sexism was now being called out. Though these are reasonings, they aren’t excuses. One might say, ‘how would he feel if it was his daughter or wife at that march? Would he still have said those things?’. These are valid questions. But a man should not have to have a woman in his life in order to believe that all women have a right to protest, feel safe, and be respected.

Image by Vonecia Carswell

To end on a positive note, it was extremely heart-warming every time we heard a woman cheer us on or ask if they could join us. There were also a few men who showed their support by chanting with us or clapping us as we passed. Although it was a somewhat scary experience, it was also incredibly empowering. It showed me that there are people, both women and men, who understand that we women are justified in our fear, and that something needs to be done about it. No matter how discouraging and frightening it is to know that there are people out there that would ‘bash my head’ for standing up for something I believe in, marches like Reclaim the Night are incredibly important in raising awareness for such an important issue. Things are getting better, but we’re not quite there yet. We have to be loud and we have to keep being loud until something is done.

 

Many thanks to Emily Dean, the people involved at the protest and the people who supported us along the way.

Words by Hannah Martin.

Edited by Lottie Watt.