In the wake of the brutal murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, Sabia Kamali calls for safe spaces and effective action against racism and sexism
Over 50 years ago, the author Germaine Greer first penned her seminal work The Female Eunuch. The opening line was: “When a woman may walk on the open streets of our cities alone, without insult or obstacle, at any pace she chooses, there will be no further need for this book.” The work was part of what the author termed the second wave of feminism, going beyond legal equalities of suffrage and property rights and looking at de facto inequalities. It also focused on violence against women, creating a movement that led to rape crisis centres and shelters.
Half a century on, with the murder of Sarah Everard in March, it seems that, despite Greer’s efforts, structural de facto inequalities against women in terms of safety from violence are still prevalent.
According to the ONS, 4.9 million women have been victims of sexual assault across the UK. One woman is murdered by a man every 3 days in the UK, 97% are sexually harassed in the UK and 20% of women experience sexual violence in the UK. In the case of Sarah Everard, we had a serving police officer, Wayne Couzens, who falsely lured Sarah off the street, handcuffed her, raped her, then strangled her with a police belt and burned her body. Rightly so, it sent a shockwave across the nation, sparking calls to end violence against women and girls once and for all. The case has sparked a debate about trust in the police and many women are outraged that a Met policeman abused his position of power. Women feel more vulnerable now they know that the Met police has officers like Wayne Couzens, who was known as ‘the rapist’ by his colleagues.
The recent murder of Sabina Nessa brought to the fore the aggravated feature of race and class that many women of colour experience in addition to the general issue of violence and safety all women face in society. Sabina Nessa, a 28-year-old primary school teacher, is believed to have been murdered five minutes away from her home and her body was found near a community centre in South East London. Koci Selamaj, 36, from Eastbourne was charged with her murder. During the same week, 40-year-old Sukhjeet Uppal was stabbed repeatedly at her own home by a man living on her street in Wolverhampton.
The lack of media coverage and general response to these cases provoked anger within the South Asian community. The lack of outrage emphasised for many the intersectional structural inequality many face in their daily lives, in which classism, sexism and racism interlock and oppress women of colour, moulding their experiences especially in terms of violence and the fear of violence. First termed by Kimberle Crenshaw, intersectionality describes structures of inequality that work together, aggravating the experiences of women of colour with violence.
For many of us, Sabina Nessa’s death triggered ‘racial anxiety with mixed emotions and growing fear’. Her death had a deep impact within the South Asian community, as we feel we are the most invisible part within our society. Her murder has also fuelled concerns about the underlying misogyny and racism which still exist in our society. A candlelit vigil was held in East Ham’s Central Park in memory of Sabina Nessa and the many other women we are losing to violence. It was organised by the Sisters Forum to create a safe space for women to raise awareness. The women there felt frustrated due to the lack of representation because of the colour of their skin. For many women this was a very personal battle. Girls are normally subjected to lots of prejudice and biases. They experience inequality within society and Sabina Nessa’s murder brought anger to the surface.
Sisters Forum wanted to create a ‘safe space’ for women physically and mentally to be able to express their concerns. Speaking about their fears, women from diverse backgrounds were encouraged to share their experiences of attack, in the presence of the police Borough Commander and the Mayor of Newham.
This was important, as women wanted to know what assurances the Met Police would give and how they will protect women when the abuser is one of them. Police need to tackle misogyny and racist attitudes amongst their officers. We want to see our streets safer for all. We will continue campaigning to make misogyny a hate crime, despite Boris Johnson recently ruling out his support.
Racism and sexism are inseparable when it comes to our lived experiences. Our experience is sometimes overlooked. At times we are at a disadvantage, but there is no contradiction between the struggle against racism, sexism, and all other ‘isms’. All must be addressed together. We need to challenge the lack of representation and call out the hypocrisy within society. We have to tackle this problem from the grassroots where the mindset becomes such that women are not respected. Women need to equally feel safe all the time, be it inside or outside the house, regardless of what a woman wears.