Who owns the night? Sexism, violence and public space

Reclaim the Night is an annual global protest against gendered violence and inequality traditionally held on the last Friday in October.

As October comes to a close, the feminist “Reclaim the Night” marches, also known as “Take back the night”, draw near.

Reclaim the Night is an annual global protest against gendered violence and inequality traditionally held on the last Friday in October.

As is the case with much of women’s history, the origins of Reclaim the Night are poorly documented and little known.

The movement was born out of the danger women faced when walking alone at night in the ’70s. It now refers more generally to gendered violence in public space, but its demands are just as relevant today as they were 40 years ago.

One of the first "Take Back the Night" marches was held in the US city of Philadelphia in October 1975, following the murder of Susan Alexander Speeth, who was brutally stabbed to death while walking home alone. Outraged, women marched through the city, demanding the right to walk alone without fear of assault or worse.

In March 1976, women who attended the International Tribunal on Crimes against Women in Belgium held a Reclaim the Night march. Holding candles, they marched through Brussels to protest violence against women.

A spike in rape statistics led women in Rome to take to the streets in 1976, as did women in West Germany in 1977. They demanded "the right to move freely in their communities at day and night without harassment and sexual assault".

England blazed with enraged women in 1977 in response to the "Yorkshire Ripper" murders. Eleven towns held marches, organised by the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group. Women in San Francisco protested the degradation of women in pornography in 1978.

More recently, in 2006, in Ipswich, Queensland, women marched in response to the murders of five sex workers and in 2012 thousands marched through Melbourne in anger at the murder of Jill Meagher.

Reclaim the Night also has origins in female separatism, banning participation from men and boys. Today, most marches internationally invite men or “allies” to participate, but some still do not allow men to march or relegate them to the back of the march or to a spectator role.

Transgender women and nonbinary people have also had to fight their way into the tradition and defend their legitimacy as people who experience gendered oppression.

Who owns the night?

The topic of public space is worth discussion.

As the feminist movement deviates from a macro perspective of sexism and the system to a micro perspective of sexism and the individual, the discussion around who really owns public space becomes obscured.

The question must be asked, who should reclaim the night, and from whom?

Under capitalism, public space has been increasingly privatised. Very little of the world around us is now held in common. Instead, space is sold in slabs to the highest bidder. Land ownership serves as a distinction between the haves and the have-nots.

Meanwhile the workers — men and women — who build the material world around us, from houses to skyscrapers, have no right to their creations. This dichotomy is what makes occupations, sit-ins and public protests that reclaim space from the state, both powerful and illegal.

But what does it mean to reclaim public space?

A pillar of the modern feminist movement is the creation of safe spaces. Yet while women now have more safe spaces to retreat into than ever, our voices are fading on the streets. Along with the voices, the radical demands and campaigns to win them also fade.

One knee-jerk reaction to upsurges in violence against women on the streets is the call for increased security and surveillance. But what this really does is put more power in the hands of the state and does not hand any of the power back to ordinary women.

It also does not help the women being beaten in their own homes, which constitutes the vast majority of cases of violence against women in Australia.

The key problem with the call for increased surveillance is that it distorts the reality of who will defeat sexism and stop gendered violence and how.

More security cameras, more police powers and better lit streets will not combat misogyny. Misogyny can only be tackled by a mass grassroots movement of people, united across genders. Forging division between genders will undermine our collective strength.

This sort of movement can only be realised hand-in-hand with a political assessment of sexism, violence and public space that recognises capitalism as the predominant driver and beneficiary of misogyny, not the average working man. The urgent need for increased funding to women’s refuges and services that enable women to leave violent relationships is an obvious opening for this sort of resurgence.

At the same time, women must be empowered to wrestle our communities out of the stronghold of developers and corporations. Women must be safe and free to contribute to our communal spaces without fear.

We cannot just reclaim the night for women on October 28. We must reclaim our lives and our communities from this sexist system.

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.