[…]

Sheffield Fems managed to survive a rather wet and windy Reclaim the Night march around Manchester last night! I’d estimate that there were probably around 300 people on the march, equally divided between the leading women only group and the mixed group following behind under the banner ‘These hands will not harm women’.

The march itself was quite short, I presume due to police restrictions (the attempt to get us to walk in regimented rows of five is testimony to how bloody ridiculous the restrictions on protest are), but we did march down the busy Oxford Road and got our message out to restaurants, bars and buses crammed with people. The public’s reaction was, as ever, a mix of support and surprise, along with the odd cry of ‘you’re all a bunch of lesbians’ from groups of homophobic gents outside McDonalds.

The post-march rally was interesting. We were unfortunately subject to a speech by member of the Labour party who is running for election. Rather than set out how she as a woman was going to try and increase concrete support for women’s rights within the party and the government, she instead tried to convince a skeptical audience of how much the government has done for women. Her failure to mention the lack of funding and support for rape crisis centres when sharing a platform with a woman who helped set up the first rape crisis centre in Brighton was actually quite offensive. Sheffield Fems all agreed that this kind of party politics really doesn’t have a place at a Reclaim The Night rally.

Fortunately, the other speakers were just wonderful. Disability rights campaigner and artist Ju Gosling highlighted the violence and discrimination that disabled people face and talked about her own fear of and inability to use public space at night as a disabled woman, due to both an attack she suffered eight years ago and the lack of services that exist to support disabled people outside their homes and workplaces. She spoke about disability rights activists’ ongoing fight to get attacks against and abuse of disabled people recognised as a hate crime – most cases are recorded as ‘motiveless’ by the police, see here – and compared this to the same refusal among politicians, the judiciary and the general public to view violence against women as a hate crime.

The third speaker was Julie Newman, who helped set up the first rape crisis centre in Brighton along with other members of her feminist collective. It was incredibly inspiring to hear how successful they were despite not having any experience or training when they initially decided to set up the centre, and in spite of all the challenges they faced, including Brighton police telling them that ‘there are no rapists in Brighton’ (!!). We really appreciated having an older feminist share her experiences with us – and calling us her sisters – and this highlighted the importance of rejecting division between younger and older feminists and working together in our fight for liberation.

The idea of sisterhood and female solidarity as opposed to mixed gender campaigning seems to be becoming quite an issue among younger feminists, the York Women’s Committee opening up to men being a case on point. This issue led to the decision to have a mixed march supporting the women’s only march in Manchester, and while organisers proclaimed this to be ‘radical’, I think it’s more complex than that.

As we congregated before the march and practiced our chants, I felt rather divided over the male presence. Hearing male voices drowning out women’s as we shouted ‘Women united will never be defeated’ was horribly ironic, and I didn’t feel the sense of female empowerment that I had done at previous marches. However, once we separated into the two groups this was no longer an issue, and I do think that it is important for men to step up and make a public commitment to both recognising and stopping male violence against women. The mixed march provided a place for that, and the turn out was impressive. I firmly believe that male involvement in feminism consists of supporting rather than leading, and the structure of the march made this clear.

Having said that, the number of women on the mixed march meant that the women-only presence on the street – the visual protest at women living in fear at night, at women being told to accept male escort or protection or not to go out at all – was reduced, which was a shame.

Perhaps the answer would be to organise separate women-only Reclaim The Night and Stop Violence Against Women marches, taking place on different days. This would mean that the visual impact and message of Reclaim The Night was not diluted, while providing a space for both women and men to unite to stop violence against women. But it’s hard enough organising one march, I know, and time spent discussing the make up of marches is time not spent fighting violence against women, so I’ll stop there.

All in all, it was a great night, and an inspiring call to arms in the fight against male violence and patriarchy. Congratulations to both NUS Women’s Officer Kat Stark and Manchester Students’ Union Women’s Officer Elizabeth Somerville for organising it, and here’s to a bigger and even better Reclaim The Night North next year!