Will we ever see an end to fatal violence against women?
CW: rape, violence, death
On the evening of the 25th of September an Edinburgh vigil was held for Sabina Nessa on The Meadows. It is one of many vigils that have been held throughout the UK in the last few weeks for Sabina Nessa, whose name few will be unfamiliar with. Nessa was a 28-year-old primary school teacher who, on her way to her local pub at around 8.30pm on the 17th of September, was killed in a Southeast London park in what Alison Morgan QC has since termed a “premeditated and predatory” attack.
This attack comes 6 months after Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens kidnapped, raped, and murdered 33-year-old Sarah Everard, an event which ignited the movement that saw thousands take to social media and the streets in protest of violence against women.
Contrasting the instant response to Everard’s attack, Nessa’s story took much longer to garner similar media attention. Anita Mureithi shared on openDemocracy that in the week immediately following the respective attacks, the spike in Google searches and social media shares of Everard’s story were significantly higher than those of Nessa. Indeed, the lack of coverage was so significant that it sparked a social media movement ensuring her story was spread, using the hashtag #SayHerName to do so.
Although the 6 days it took to find Everard’s body in comparison to the 1 taken to find Nessa’s catalysed both urgency and attention surrounding her case, when considering the disparity in immediate responses to both attacks, the question of race cannot be ignored.
Nessa was of British Bangladeshi heritage, and many wonder if the media response would have differed if she were Caucasian. It should be considered that the minimisation of her case is emblematic of a wider societal disregard for women from Asian, Black, and minority ethnic communities, who are doubly burdened by the threat of violence against women and the intersection of this violence with race.
Nessa’s story represents the thousands of murdered women who struggle to garner any media attention. Karen Ingala Smith reported in her blog Counting Dead Women that contemporaneously in 2021 at least 110 women have been killed by or are suspected to have been killed by men in the UK. Beginning on the 4th of January, 93-year-old Eileen Dean was the first woman killed from an attack in her bed in a care home. Everard falls at number 29, and Nessa at number 107, with the killings of 77 women separating them, and a further 3 killings following Nessa’s.
It is worth considering how many of these 110 names we know, and how many of these women received public outpourings of grief. All these women’s lives mattered, yet they somehow remain anonymous. It seems as though we live in a culture where men killing women is so commonplace it is largely not newsworthy. It is important to address whether Sabina Nessa’s name would be known by the public at all were it not for the enduring conversations regarding women’s safety and the social media efforts to amplify her story. The continuing fatal violence against women after the killings of both Everard and Nessa indicate that while the public outcry has raised awareness of these crimes, it has far from stopped them.
In the wake of Everard and Nessa’s deaths is the implicit messaging is that women need to be more careful. In recent weeks the Met police issued a list of ‘tips for staying safe on the street’, in which women were told to walk assertively, ideally in groups, with a charged phone and having told someone where they are. This notion that women need to follow specific rules in order to be safe not only misogynistically frames women as victims who need to be protected, it also holds women responsible for their own safety. In short, it is victim-blaming.
Women know all too well what steps we already take to lessen the threat of men’s violence. We cross the road when men walk behind us, we have pretend phone conversations, we carry our keys between our knuckles, we choose outfits based on how they will affect the way we are treated, when the sun has set we run instead of walk, spend money on taxis for short journeys, take longer, well-lit routes, and so forth.
That women are encouraged to behave in these ways in an attempt to be safe and men are not explicitly demonstrates the gender inequality that pervades society. It also reveals that violence against women is enacted because they are women: Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa were killed because they are women, they were victims of femicide.
Women deserve to be safe regardless of what we wear, what time it is, and where we walk. Women deserve to be safe regardless of their appearance, race, background, or class. Women deserve to behave just as men do and be safe from harassment, assault, oppression, and murder. The killing of any woman should be newsworthy.
Our society must stop attempting to manage violence against women by asking women to monitor their behaviour. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these measures do not work, and women continue to be attacked. Instead, society must prevent this violence against women by addressing the systemic issue of gender inequality that makes walking down the street a dangerous activity.
Image: via Pixabay