Women Unite, Reclaim the night!

Rachel Bell reports on November's hugely successful Reclaim the Night March in London, and some of the marchers explain their reasons for taking part.

Rachel Bell, 28 January 2006

On 25th November 2005, around 700 women wrapped up or rushed from work to march and shout "Women Unite, Reclaim the Night". After a week in which Amnesty International's report revealed the public's shockingly sexist attitudes to women who are raped, and a drunk woman's case was thrown out of court, the march on the International Day To End Violence Against Women was all the more poignant.

Reclaim the Night Banner @Jo Salmon

The ICM poll commissioned by Amnesty suggested that a third of people in the UK believe a women who flirts is partially responsible for being raped; 26% believe a women is partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing; 22% hold the same view if a woman has had many sexual partners. Around 8% (that's 1 in 12) believed that a woman is totally responsible for being raped if she's had many sexual partners; 30% said that a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk. The poll results suggest that too may people buy into the 'common tart' myth and stereotype of women that has denied women justice from time immemorial. One wonders if so many of those surveyed would hold these deeply misogynist views if their daughters were raped, or if they knew someone very well who had been a victim of male violence.

a girl or woman who wears a short shirt and likes a drink is seen as responsible

The general public apparently see no need for feminism; it is laughed off as an old-fashioned issue. Yet a huge part of our society believes that a girl or woman who has had several sexual partners, wears a short shirt and likes a drink is responsible for the violent, misogynist acts of a brutal rapist. Many marchers feared the judge's ruling on a drunk woman's case sent out the message that it was now open season for rapists. The anger at the ignorance surrounding the sheer scale of rape, the culture of blame towards women and the almost complete absence of justice for women was what got us shouting, 'Get out of the house, get out on the street, we won't be raped, we won't be beat!' up Tottenham Court Road in the cold.

Reclaim the Night was revived in 2004 by Finn Mackay, Isabel Eden and Becca Morden. Every woman on the march was moved at the size of the crowd who had assembled to show their support for the survivors of rape that number more than 50,000 every year in the UK. The marches arrived to take up space on the streets without fear and to demand the basic human right to safety from male violence.

the marches arrived to take up space on the streets without fear

For one night in the year women got the chance to raise their voices and anger at the inhumane levels of violence against women that happen every hour of every day in every country of the world; to object to the fact that only 5.6% of women who have the courage to report rape get justice. This is no one-off women's issue, this is an issue for the entire community, for society; it is a wholescale human rights atrocity. Women should be protected, not blamed. Men who commit violence against women must be made accountable. Kate Allen of Amnesty International said of their report on attitudes to rape: "These findings should act as a wake-up call to the government to urgently tackle the triple problem of the high incidence of rape, low conviction rates and a sexist blame culture."

As police stopped traffic for the women only march, led by jumping cheerleaders in pink ear muffs and invigorated by whistles and women playing the trumpet, trombone and drums, some bystanders looked puzzled, unaware of the crisis of violence against women that affects I in 3 girls and women. But many women who saw us nodded at our banners and chants and raised their hands above heir heads to clap hard. Our message was simple after all:

Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no!

We demand the right - to walk the streets at night - without the fear of rape!

Reclaim the Night marchers @Jo Salmon

The marchers speak out:

It's a basic human right that we should be able to be on our own at night without the fear of being attacked and its not our problem. We shouldn't have to stay in, we shouldn't have a curfew.
Jessica Bateman, 20

I recently discovered that the Home Office took away funding for the Rape Crisis Federation in 2003 and we need the funding back!
Laura, 20

The crime rate is disgraceful in Britain, we're not a third world country and we should be able to walk the streets without fear.
Rachel, 29

This march is a long time coming because we live in a so-called civilised Britain but women are still afraid to walk out at night, women in relationships, women in marriages where there's domestic violence are getting raped, men are going to war and raping women. Its about time that we raised our voices collectively to try and get something done about it. Because the issue is with men. It's not about women. It's about men and male control and power.
Zlakha Ahmed, 42

it's about time that we raised our voices collectively

I'm angry with the whole of society that fails to see the persistent reign of terror that men perpetrate over women in this country and all over the world. This is not something that legislation can solve alone, it's a kind of blindness in society that we all see killing and rapes occurring everyday and nobody says this is men who are doing this to women. What women are most afraid of in the world is the other half of their own species. I think that this is so outrageous.
Cynthia, 71

I'm marching tonight because after this week, where a case was thrown out because the girl was drunk and a survey which showed that a huge percentage of people thought that rape was justifiable, the tens of thousands of girls and women who are raped deserve justice.
Lucy, 37

I'm glad to see this march is back on for the second time. I used to march on this sort of march at the beginning of the nineties and I don't think much has changed in regards to the prosecution of men who commit rape and I'm here because hopefully it'll change!
Deborah, 36

As we were walking passed Spearmint Rhino, a place where supposedly women feel empowered, I thought to myself, no, that is not empowerment, this is empowerment and I could really feel it. When I stopped chanting and I could hear the women behind me shouting 'Women Unite, Reclaim the Night', I thought yeah, this is empowerment.
Beatriz, a London Radical Cheerleader and Object member, 32

the tens of thousands of girls and women who are raped deserve justice

I'm not that afraid of male violence because I'm relatively young, I'm fit, I'm a cyclist, I used to take karate which means I feel that I could kick the shit out of men however, the solidarity of being with 700 women is just indescribable, it's wonderful to be on a women's march with women, taking up space and being on the street. Just being with women is the reason I'm marching tonight.
Elizabeth Carola, 45

The first Reclaim the Night came out in reaction to the Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper and so the initial marches were organised in Leeds area and then London marches followed on from that. The march in 1977 was autonomous and spontaneous, events. We never went for things like police permission like today. We produced about 500 women at very short notice, just from word of mouth. In 1977, we got beaten to shit by the police, 16 women were arrested and became the very famous Soho 16 and were all tried with things like affray and obstruction. These women got bashed and then arrested and they all got off because the police evidence was really badly put together but it was actually quite motivating, it was one of those things that really got everyone moving. We had to organise fundraising events to pay the women's defence. And we were a bit less polite in those days. The marches actually went right through Soho and right into the foyers of the strip joints and we threw stink bombs and flour bombs and all kinds , so I find this kind of thing very civilised. Next year, instead of coming straight from Soho Square and straight up Tottenham Court Road, I'd like to see it go through Soho again, where a large amount of the sex industry operates. There are still loads of obnoxious men all around central London, particularly on the weekend so there'd be more of a point to take it into the centre.
Pam Isherwood

I'm marching to make a change.
Rebecca, 26

the solidarity of being with 700 women is just indescribable

There is a wonderful mix of ages and backgrounds in the crowd, and it is stunning to see so many women marching together through the middle of London (a sight which is so unusual it visibly shocked some of the passers by). Although there was a good mixture of ages, I think the majority of women marching are young women, totally busting the myth that young women are apathetic about feminist issues. The London Radical Cheerleaders are fantastic. I love the fact that people in the street can see hundreds of women marching behind a banner of feminism and then see the cheerleaders waving their black and pink pom-poms and chanting witty slogans! Again, all of this helps to bust the negative myths about feminism in a really effective way.

The week's news about how some people think women are partly or totally responsible if they are raped just added an extra impetus to the march. Everyone I know is absolutely fuming about the attitudes expressed in that survey, and the reporting of rape issues last week was absolutely appalling - the implications seemed to be that to escape blame women should become reclusive and live completely different lives to men. So the timing of the march could not have been better.
Catherine Redfern, 27, the f word

I feel very strongly about women's rights. We are more or less half of the population of the world, yet most of women are, in one way or another, oppressed so this is for my sisters abroad and in the UK. There are so many women living in the middle of nowhere in developing countries who have no one to talk to if they need help, who are educated to believe that if your husband beats you that's normal, he's a man, that you're wrong if you speak out, that you're expected to do two or three times the work of the man plus all the household work and looking after the children. This is my little way of supporting them.
Haidee, 25

I came on this march with other people from Liverpool because this is a really big issue for today's women and one that we mustn't let die or be silenced. And it's really important that we fight back against the lowering rape conviction rates, that we fight for our right to walk safely and be safe and be respected as women. It's about reclaiming feminism and reclaiming the night.
Esther Sumner, 21, Women's officer, Liverpool university

it's really important that we fight against the low rape conviction rates

It's incredibly important and relevant issue and it has been for many years, centuries even. Although it was addressed by the secondwave feminist movement in the seventies, it has gone out of fashion to be a feminist and I think that is absolutely dreadful. That alone needs addressing. A woman was recently murdered on our university campus and another woman was raped near our campus in the last few months and that shows that its an issue that affects all the students and all the women that live in Liverpool and all around the country. Male violence is not far away, it's not something that always happens to strangers and is committed by strangers and we need to stand up and say that its wrong and it needs to be stopped.
Hannah Ryan, 20

I've come on this march because I've been involved in campaigning against male violence for the best part of twenty years and we've made a lot of gains in some ways but still actually women are blamed if they are raped, women are frightened to go out on their own at night, I'm frightened walking home from the tube at night on my own and we need to stand together as women to make a change.
Hilary McCollum

I'm really concerned that we have a record attrition rate in this country which means for the first time women are reporting rape and we have the highest level of reported rapes ever now in this country and the lowest ever on legal recorded history, the lowest ever rate of convictions of rape. So finally women who are raped are stepping forward and saying this has happened to me yet they're being completely unsupported by the courts because of the vicious culture of disbelief. That's what I am marching for. We've got to believe the women who say they were raped, we've got to accept that even if women do things that we think are irresponsible, the punishment of rape far outweighs the so called 'crime' of wearing short skirts or having a drink too many.
Rebecca, London Feminist Network

we need to stand together as women to make a change

I came on this march for the men that I know. What women are being told to accept by these rape laws and social attitudes is that all men are rapists and I do not accept that. I look around at my boyfriend, my father, my friends who are men and I think these men are not the men we are talking about. I think it's awful that these men have to be judged as savages and we can only think of them in that way if the law will not protect us and single out those rogue men that are responsible for rape. The law and social attitudes are saying that as women we are left with having to believe all men are rapists for our own protection - and I do not accept that. In a way what we need now is a men's march for men to say that we men do not accept it either. We've all been picked up from pubs by men, escorted somewhere by men because men also know it's a dangerous world out there for us and that's why we needed a women's only march. We needed to reclaim the night back because too often we have to be ferried to one place to another, we have to get a cab and have to question whether the cab is safe. We need that one single day in the year that we might come to together as women and be safe. I came to fight the cause for men too because I don't believe they are brutal, nasty, raping savages, but the ones that are must be brought to book. And they're not, so we women who know and love men are being told by the law that we have to treat all men as if they are brutal, nasty, raping savages.
Carol, 33

We are not to blame for rape and male violence, those men who choose to commit those crimes are to blame. By marching tonight women are focusing the blame back where it should be, and empowering ourselves in the process. We will continue marching forward after this night, continuing the struggle for women's rights.
Finn Mackay, founder London Feminist network and co-organiser of Reclaim the Night

About the author

Rachel Bell

Rachel Bell is a journalist and feminist. Photos are courtesy of Jo Salmon.

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