A march through the streets can be a powerful thing for women who are often isolated from other feminists, argues Rebecca Heller, one of the organisers of Edinburgh’s Reclaim the Night March planned for 11 October
The Guardian recently published a special issue of the G2 supplement, marking 50 years of the writing from their women’s pages. This included an extract from Polly Toynbee writing about a Reclaim the Night march in 1977. “As a campaign it seemed to be ideologically sound enough, but tactically and politically a hopeless gesture. What’s the good of taking to the streets to change the whole way society thinks, without making a single demand for specific changes in law, its policing, or in the allocation of money?”
What’s the good indeed? As members of the collective organising Edinburgh’s first Reclaim the Night march in at least 10 years, this is the very question that we have been asking ourselves.
When we first began looking at organising a Reclaim the Night march in Edinburgh, we were surprised to find no evidence of any marches in the city before. On we merrily went with our organising, proudly inviting people to come to “Edinburgh’s first ever Reclaim the Night march”.
After a fundraising event, someone from a local women’s organisation tactfully took us aside and told us that actually there had been marches in Edinburgh before. Oops. Even with the accessibility of information on the internet, it appears that history still reflects only selected elements of women’s lives.
Like many Reclaim the Night marches across Britain over the ’80s, we were told, attendance had gradually dwindled over the years, until the women organising them decided to put their energy into other projects and the marches were abandoned altogether.
Was this because they are indeed “tactically and politically a hopeless gesture”? It’s true that the marches are not making specific demands or lobbying for specific changes, and our march in October doesn’t intend to either.
Furthermore, as a worker in a local rape crisis centre, I am squeamish about some of the implications of Reclaim the Night. How useful is it to demand women’s right to walk along dark streets late at night, when attacks by strangers account for less than 10% of rapes? Is this really the best fight for young feminists?
Speaking to friends who aren’t involved in the feminist movement reveals again and again that most people think rape is carried out in a dark alley by a man in a balaclava. We still get a male friend to walk us home, even though the statistics point to us being at far greater risk from him than from anyone on a backstreet. A woman is overwhelmingly more likely to be raped in her own home by someone she has either invited in, or already lives with, than she is by the stranger in the park. That’s not to say that this doesn’t happen, or that it isn’t horrendous for women when it does, but there is a real possibility that Reclaim the Night marches, with their focus on safe streets for women, will play into the very ‘rape myths’ which we need to undermine.
Nowhere is this more alarming than here in Scotland, where the conviction rate for reported rapes currently stands at 3.9% – one of the worst in Europe, and in some parts of the country it is even lower. As a feminist and a rape crisis worker, I find it easy to see the direct links between the myths about rape and the difficulty in securing a conviction for any rapist that hasn’t jumped out from behind a bush to terrorise his sober victim, who was just on her way home from the library buttoned up in a warm winter coat. People, including juries, still have this idea firmly in their head and are reluctant to blame and/or convict other rapists.
An essential part of the feminist agenda remains educating people about the reality of the sexual violence that women face in their lives and you could argue that this means moving away from the message of Reclaim the Night. We do need to secure the streets for women, but more than that we need to have homes that our safe, and friends and families we can trust not to rape us.
We are making some headway in Scotland. Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland, has recently committed to an overhaul of rape law in order to try and improve the conviction rate and our march takes place on the very night that Rape Crisis Scotland launches the first National Helpline for survivors of rape and sexual assault. The line will run every day from 6pm until 12am, a fantastic achievement for all those involved.
Indeed, many of the women who organised Scotland’s Reclaim the Night marches in the ’70s are now actively involved, not only in women’s organisations, but in the Scottish Parliament itself. Is there really any need then, for another march that has no political agenda but only asks for an end to all men’s violence against women and children? Wouldn’t we be better off putting our energy into other activism, or even joining the march that is organised by the council (yes, that’s right, the council) that happens every year in Edinburgh under the banner of their commitment to end violence against women?
I don’t think so. Because Reclaim the Night marches aren’t just about safe streets for women any longer. They have become an opportunity – rarer and rarer since the ’80s backlash began – for women to get together, stand up for women’s rights and draw a city’s attention to the long way still to go before women achieve equality.
They are also a chance for young women to organise together and engage the community – sometimes the first opportunity we have had. This is something that has become clear to us through the diversity of women in our collective organising the march. Some of us come from the violence against women movement, some of us have come to feminism through disciplines like literature or sociology, but some of us just began to realise that things actually weren’t OK for women.
An email sent to us early on from a woman who wanted to get involved, and who is now an active member of our collective, read like this: “I’m not actively involved in feminism, but it shocks me how my male friends react when I mention ‘small’ incidents of sexual discrimination – they tend to laugh or ask if I’m a lesbian now. As a young women working in business I am constantly surprised at discretely sexist attitudes. I thought that equality was more widely accepted than it is.”
Another member of the collective, Fiona Gordon, takes up the thread, explaining to me how she found her way to this Reclaim the Night march:
“I grew up being a tomboy and wanting to do all the ‘fun’ things boys could. I was never overly interested in typical ‘girly’ pursuits. I confess I was guilty of using girly as a derogatory term. I loved studying the Suffragettes in history and hearing about these strong women changing the world. It was actually my friends who teasingly called me a feminist long before I called myself one. One boyfriend jokingly called me Pankhurst whenever I spent too long on my soap box.
“However, it was only recently that I found out more about the feminist movement [that I] starting hearing terms like second wave feminism and I wanted to find out more. This happened to coincide with moving to Edinburgh and, through [reading] a newspaper article, I came across the Edinburgh Feminist Network. So, uncharacteristically, I emailed to see if I could come along and find out more [and found] they were organising a march to make a stand to end violence against women. It sounded great.
“I was nervous about attending the first meeting, I expected older women who had been there and done that and would see me as ignorant about the background to their cause. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The group is made up of young women who, far from judging and smugly assuming you know the arguments already, actively encourage new ideas and make an effort to let everyone’s opinion be heard. Not that I don’t have a great respect for the feminists of previous decades and the challenges they faced. I feel like one of the big challenges feminists of my generation face is that people think the fight has been won. The reaction I get when I mention feminism is strange, there’s a feeling I’m being over-sensitive, making a fuss, being boring by taking things too seriously. I now look forward to EFN meetings on Wednesday evenings, to enjoy the time spent in a supportive friendly environment. I love having a space where I can openly talk about issues that affect me and people around me without the usual ‘here she goes again’ rolling of the eyes.
“I also feel that since joining the group I have had my eyes opened to the very real problem of violence towards women. While none of my friends identified with feminism, nearly everyone had an experience relating to violence or abuse from men. Different experiences from minor to frightening came out of the woodwork [and] this made it harder to listen to people’s negative reactions when I mentioned I had joined a feminist group.
“The more I found out about the problem, the more bewildered I was as to how I hadn’t know the extent of the problem before. Discussions at the group made me think more about my idea of a man who attacks women. I had a cartoon image of a dodgy looking guy in a hoody, with scary eyes and wild hair creeping around in dark alleys. I don’t know why I never realised how ridiculous that sounded. I now feel angry that I’ve felt afraid walking home alone, or I’ve avoided being alone outside at night. It makes me angrier to think that these feelings aren’t a direct result of people I know being attacked or even a local incident. It is just instilled in all of us that women alone at night are targets and you should have a man with you for protection.”
This, for me, is key to why Reclaim the Night marches are again enjoying a resurgence, and why the London ones over the last three years have seen increasing numbers of women marching. So many women of my generation (most of our collective were born in the ’80s) have never really been exposed to anyone calling themselves a feminist, except through jokes or insults.
Women who begin to feel that they want to change things, or who are uncomfortable with the sexist attitudes of their friends or colleagues, often have nowhere to go with these ideas. The consciousness-raising women’s groups of the ’70s don’t really exist anymore and if you’re not involved in a university or college you may not have anywhere to find and meet like-minded women. In fact, my university has anti-discrimination laws which prevent any organisation being women-only, so you don’t even have that.
Second wave feminism was a powerful force partly because women got together, compared their lives and realised that, actually, they were pissed off about a lot of the same things. Women of my generation need that and to me there is no stronger statement than a march along the streets, where we can stand up and be counted as a group, strong in our solidarity and support of one another, shouting loudly that we think it’s time that the lives of women got better. So even though we aren’t asking for specific political changes and our demand – that rape and violence against women ends – is a broad one, on 11 October I will be at the front of the march, yelling my head off and waving my banner. I’ll be handing out the Truth About Rape postcards that we’ve had specially printed to late night shoppers. And most of all, I’ll just be happy and excited knowing that there are other women who think like I think – in fact there are loads of us.