What should feminism look like? Reclaim the Night Fremantle 2012

I have just read the anonymous blog by “Shutupmsrose” and I am quite upset. I have no problem with a tactical discussion on the issue of who is invited to “reclaim the night” and what role they play.

 

I have had my own set of experiences of organising and attending Reclaim the Night that I would like to share. I would like to assert that respect more than anything that creates a safe space for women. I really find this difficult, I am not sure about how the movement is using the word triggering, but I think this is it. I actually upset to the point of wanting to be sick.

 

As a feminist I always thought that being involved in the women’s movement was about sisterly solidarity and support. My mother had told me about organizing to get herself a job, to inform women voters and to take on the Port Pirie and it’s misogynist culture.

 

I was first involved in organizing Reclaim the Night in Canberra in 1997. We had a campaign about domestic and public violence. A truly horrible incident of domestic violence had taken place in public and the subsequent acquittal of the perpetrator on the defense of “being too drunk” had galvanized women into action.

 

When I moved to Melbourne I also go involved in Reclaim the Night events. It was not a particularly positive experience for me. In fact that is a complete understatement, on the whole differences of opinions were not respected. I had often a different take on things because I was working on construction sites and no particularly academically well read. I felt belittle and often dismissed – a tone that was taken with me again recently when I tried to contribute to a discussion on my view on the priorities of the women’s movement and gender roles on a friends Facebook page (not by my friend). I was told that if I had not read particular texts or used language in a particular way that I did know anything about feminism. 

 

I found for me the experience of organizing Reclaim the Night often involved the emotional bullying of myself and others. An example of this is when a woman who was from a Kurdish background put her view that men should participate in the event. It was based on her respect for a particular man who had escaped with her from Iraq. He had been a doctor that at great risk to him had provided gynecological and obstetric services to women including to those who were being hidden in the underground because their pregnancies put them at threat of honor killing, something the Iraqi woman had personal experience of. As this woman was articulating her point another member of the Collective shouted at her “You just want men there cos you love dick! You love DICK!”. At this point the meeting broke down and we decided to discuss the issue of men marching at the next meeting. The next meeting the issue of me marching was on the agenda again and the meeting was clearly attended by many women how had no interest in organizing the event come along (over 30 where the committee had been about 7 until then). When the woman who was chairing asked that people respect each other during the discussion she was verbally attacked and we were told that the woman who had yelled to comments had “experienced sexual assault”, that the Iraqi woman should be “tough enough to handle it” and asking for people to be polite and respectful was “re-traumatising”. Being older and wiser I know I would walk away from such a hostile environment but at the time I thought that this is what I had to put up with if I wanted to be a feminist.

 

After that year I stopped organizing in the collective but I attended the events. I was dealing with some pretty nasty stuff in my work life (after being sexually assaulted at work I had to choose between continuing to work with this man or loose my apprenticeship) and I wanted some sisterly solidarity. When I arrived at the event it had been organized instead to “tell survival stories”. At the time I was not personally strong enough to hear what was being said had. The event was small. As I went to leave a woman stopped me and said, “Why are you leaving?” When I tried to walk past her saying “I just don’t want to hear this”, she physically blocked my path saying, “Well you should, rape victims never get a chance to speak, I can believe you would ignore her”.  I feel now I would have had the confidence to stand up to this ‘marshal’ but at the time I did not.  Found it hard to sleep after this and it still upsets me thinking about it. I stepped back for organizing and attending Reclaim the Night and International Women’s Day events for a long time instead I expressed my feminism through my trade union.  Campaigning for maternity leave to be placed into EBAs, rights for casual workers and a decent sexual harassment policy within my union, for campaigns like the prochoice campaign and to stop cuts in services. I also became a person that when people had experienced sexual harassment or violence they sort out to help them through the process, including helping women to report of rape and sexual assaults to police.

 

I only became involved in an event this year in Fremantle because I spoke to a number of young feminists on my campus who were not relating to the world like this. Personally I found the attendance of men as supporters (probably about ¼ of the crowd) invigorating. It gave me hope that we can make change, that our daughters may grow up in a world where rape and assault are not at epidemic proportions.  I did not walk away as I have from so many other RtN events with the horrible sinking feeling that rape & assault are inevitable and that my own traumas would not be healed.

 

I am upset that this has been posted online rather than being bought up with the organisers on the night. I had specifically posted both in the comments on the before the event and in the general description of the event that, “We welcome all that support the goals of this event to attend. We will not tolerate the denigration of any other rally participants.” I feel that if we had known about the behavior of this man we could have asked him to leave easily. I did notice that one woman looked a little shaken on the night and I approach her twice once asking “Are you ok?” and another time saying “How are you feeling?”. It may have been the woman was the one that wrote this. Maybe not as  she may have been upset for other reasons. I know that the family of Jill Meagher lives in WA and I can’t imagine how they would have felt if they had attended the event. 

 

Personally I welcome the campaigns that were highlighted by the Union movement. For me they have a clear role in as leadership in many areas where men dominate challenging misogynist culture. The recent inclusion of the ASU and MUA in EBAs of “Domestic Violence Clauses” will change and save women’s lives. “[Anti Domestic] Violence Campaigner Phil Cleary believes his sister Vicki could have lived if a family violence agreement had been in place at her work. In 1987, Vicki was stabbed to death by her former boyfriend outside the Coburg kindergarten where she worked.” (Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/the-right-to-leave-20121026-28axr.html#ixzz2AYgeICgx) The campaign for better working conditions and better service by the unions present (including the campaign to save Warrawee Women’s Refuge) if successful will mean women have more financial security and more community support when leaving violence. The event in Australia has in different formulation to stop violence against women and for women to asset their right to be in public space. Reclaim the Night cannot ignore the violence that one third of women experience, intimate partner violence, we cannot ignore that this is a issue and only focus on claiming public space. We can’t ignore our fellow fighters, the women of the union movement and their allies, who are fighting this fight daily.

 

If we are talking about bodily autonomy I think that the question of rape being used as a weapon of war and Australia’s barbaric treatment of the women who flee this horror is a vital one. The detention enforces isolation and trauma amongst women who have had these experiences.  Whilst in detention refugee women lack basic bodily autonomy, like access to contraception, privacy and some experience sexual assault & rape.

 

 More broadly I find it a little disturbing that people are claiming the history of the event I feel this reflects an unhelpful tendency to speak on behalf of others. So far the only communication we have had from any one who has been involve in the original Reclaim the Night movement has been positive. Many women like myself ho have had a long history in the Reclaim the Night movement disagree with the version of history being presented. Reclaim the Night has been always autonomous, it has had immediate goals and policies on what role men should play. It has been the women that have planned, coordinated and led the event that have made these decisions year to year at each different location.

 

I think it is extremely important that the movement treats all women with dignity and respect. Also believe it is good to look at ourselves and the things that we hold are held as truths. It is not true that only those who articulate their experiences who have been victims of sexual assault, rape and violence. We know that domestic and sexual violence are at epidemic proportions and that the majority of women have experienced rape, sexual assault or harassment. Looking at crowd numbers this year compared to the last two years is interesting. While some groups chose not to be involved in this year, that has also been the case for the previous two years in Perth as well. Even if we look at just at the numbers of women who attend that were not part of any left or feminist organization we see a large amount of people choosing not to attend the events that have been held in previous years in Perth but choosing to attend this years Fremantle event. Some people have assert that this is because previous years events have been boycotted but this does not account for the lack of presents of non left or feminist organization aligned women.  Maybe it is also the case that the events in Perth were not speaking to women in a way they want to support. Why was it that many women asked if the safe was for trans women? Or safe for women who work in the sex industry to raise demands about safety? I had many phone calls asking if it will be an environment to bring kids, without graphic the details of sexual assault heard at other events? If these questions needed to be asked, we need to look at why.

 

We must ask ourselves are we choosing to listen to the loud voices? The voices that will not tolerate difference of opinion? Are we choosing to listen to the bullying voices? Or those who use their experience to silence others?

 

Or are we aiming to win the battle against rape culture and misogyny? Is what we are doing building strengthening a movement that asserts woman’s’ right to be safe? Can we build a movement led by women for our liberation, respectfully, together?

 

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