Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Reclaim the night

I went on my first Reclaim the Night march about twenty years ago. Some police officer had just suggested - to wide media coverage - women stay home at night in a community a serial rapist had been operating in. So they would be safe.

Wellington exploded, and that march was the angriest RTN I've been on, as women took to the streets and told the city exactly why that police response was so inappropriate.

Firstly of course, why should women's behaviour be controlled when the police knew the rapist was a man? Since when do we stop, say, rich people having money, because it's an incitement for burglary?

And secondly - women's homes are the least safe space for us in terms of physical and sexual violence. It's where most rapes happen, by men we know. It's where we call the police from, every six minutes in New Zealand, because the man we're in a relationship with is hurting us.

So Reclaim the Night has ALWAYS been about fighting the untrue messages women get about our safety, and drawing attention to the unpalatable facts. 99% of sexual violence perpetrated by men in Aotearoa. 95% of it against women. A woman killed by her partner every month. That's what the police stats say.

That doesn't even touch on how often women are leered at, groped, sexually harassed, rubbed against, and verbally abused on our streets. Next time you are with a group of women, ask them about these kinds of experiences. They are universal experiences, targetted especially at young women.

My first RTN was also memorable because my best friend, a beautiful man who treated women in his life with respect and challenged other men when they did not do the same, just could not believe he was not able to march. He didn't understand why, as a man, his presence was not required on that night. We had one of those conversations you have when your position in the world is coloured differently, but you do actually really want to hear the other.

He got it, in the end, and now is involved in the White Ribbon campaign in France.

I'm struck, in 2009, at the fact we are still having to explain why Reclaim the Night, targetting male violence against women, is still an event for self-identified women, and those whose gender does not fit into our neat binary world.

There are still men wanting to come along - though these same men are not organising their own events, or taking part in White Ribbon week, or actually doing anything much about violence against women except expecting to come on a march organised by women - because "violence is bad for me too". There are men threatening to disrupt the march, because they are not invited, men who call themselves allies.

Having worked to stop violence against women for two decades, I am very used to this. This work is done by women. We often try to get men involved - and those that are remain extremely dear to us - but mostly, men remain uninterested in collecting for Rape Crisis, or challenging rape myths in the media, or intervening when another man is taking advantage of a woman's vulnerability to target her for sexual violence. The men I know who genuinely work alongside feminists to end violence against women are too busy on White Ribbon events the week of the Reclaim the Night march in Wellington, too busy with their own attempts to end violence, to even consider a women-only march a problem.

One of the justifications being posed to Reclaim the Night organisers for male involvement is to ensure that transpeople, intersex people and genderqueer people will feel safe in coming along. Otherwise, the argument goes, they will have to "out" themselves to attend, at least those who cannot pass as women.

Living in a binary world, where we are all classified by our gender every minute of every day, is absolutely constraining to each and every one of us, not just Olympic runners who run so fast their femininity is called into question. People who challenge this binary - by living in ambiguous bodies, by pushing those boundaries, by claiming their right to live absolutely how they wish and challenging discrimination they experience - are doing something which benefits us all.

I don't buy the idea that public protest is necessarily going to be "safe" for people pushing binary boundaries around gender - or will be made safe by inviting men along to a march which is targeting male violence.

I do acknowledge that the Reclaim the Night march misses exposing other types of violence. We're not targeting the violence of colonisation for example - why is it the Maori women report sexual violence at higher rates than Pakeha? Or that our prisons are lined with Maori men?

Ironically enough, we have not been challenged about this by Maori - perhaps because the idea of separate organisation around political activism is well understood by Maori.

We're not targeting male violence against other men - the fact young working class men in Aotearoa grow up in a "fight club" culture to prove how masculine they are. We're not targeting queer bashing, or trans hatred, or sexual abuse against children, or violence against new migrants.

This march will not be all things to all people. It will target the issues the women organising it decided to target, months ago, when we started meeting.

If you are a genuine supporter rather than someone who just wants to disrupt because this isn't your issue, then organise some political events of your own which draw attention to the issues you want. Many of the women organising this march will be there to support you. Many of us are also victims of queer bashing and/or other kinds of violence.

But Reclaim the Night 2009 is about stopping the excuses for violence against women.


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