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Reclaim the Streets: A walk towards a safer future?

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A week that started with celebrating International Women’s Day ended with masses of women gathering to raise awareness for women like Sarah Everard: women who have been harassed, assaulted, or murdered while taking a walk – all for simply being women.

On Sunday, March 14th, a mainly social-media and student-organised event, ‘Reclaim the Streets’, was scheduled to take place in Stirling, starting at 11pm.

With as little information as the date and time, several groups of students took out into the streets, both in town and on campus, to show solidarity with the victims of assault and street harassment.

During the course of the days following this moving occasion, I had the chance of interviewing some of its attendees – all of which are students at Stirling University.

When asked about the movement’s purpose, Nikita Vance, a second-year student, said that it was “to form a unity with all women worldwide” but also to show that “women will no longer be intimidated by the threat of violence, as we have the right to feel safe on the streets.”

According to Brodie Houston, a third-year student, ‘Reclaim the Streets’ “sends the message that if we look out for each other, we can all feel a bit safer until real change can occur” and, to Alicia Bohill, a first-year student, this event symbolised “a turning point for women”.

With a clear and powerful mission at its core, many trust that ‘Reclaim the Streets’ is triumphant in what it is trying to accomplish.

Credit: Theo Barrett

“I’ve definitely seen far more discussion about the issues online and in the Stirling community,” said Kirsty Nicholas, a second-year student. Deanna Proctor, a first-year student, added that “it’s definitely raising awareness and starting conversations that need to be had.”

Some believe that, while the movement is successfully shining a light on this important issue, going for another walk would keep the movement from reaching its inevitable expiration date.

It is like Nikita said: While “the main thing we can do is keep talking about it, if we continue to push the topic into the forefront of everyone’s minds, then there’s no way it can be forgotten about.”

For most, though, the beauty of this event lay in how spontaneous it was. There was barely any organisation around it.

“It was just a walk,” said Mary-Kate Ross, a second-year student. “Someone decided to bring candles, make a speech and turn it into a vigil. The person who did this is Charlene. Charlene spoke and it led to other people speaking out about how they feel about what it’s like to be a young woman.”

To those who gathered in town, the vigil and the speeches look to be the highlight of the night – for various reasons.

“What made me feel really hopeful and supported was when a kind girl approached me and offered to walk up to the vigil with me to put my sign down, because I felt too shy to do it alone,” said Nikita. “It may have been nothing to her, but to me it was such a kind gesture that I will never forget.”

“My favourite moment was when the girl started speaking,” Anna Robertson, a third-year student, reminisced. “There was this raw feeling: so much heartbreak, yet so much hope.”

For Kirsty, the vigil also had a special atmosphere. “I think the best part was the spontaneity of it all,” she said. “Someone turned up with a bunch of candles to light and a girl we were with said: ‘Oh, I’ve got some more in my flat,’ and went and got a whole bag of them.”

Credit: Anna Robertson

The lack of coordination was not for everyone, though. As stated by Charlie Fernandez Murray, a first-year student: “There wasn’t really a meeting place, or anything. The information was pretty vague.”

Perhaps, then, if another event of this nature is organised sometime in the future, there should be a little more information provided.

Everyone that attended can agree on loving one thing about the movement, however: the unification it created.

To Alessandra Rizzi, a first-year student, who walked around campus that night, “it felt almost liberating” to see so many people around. Deanna, who also strolled through the University grounds, said that this “was the safest” she felt on campus, and that she “felt really proud to be there.”

“I can’t explain why we felt safe,” started Anna. “But we did! Maybe it was because of the safety the women provided at the vigil; it made us feel safer, too.”

Even though the majority felt a certain level of security, a few of those that were present at the vigil disclosed their discomfort at the presence of men that do not practice what the event preaches. This subject matter was also at the centre of a heated online debate, which questioned whether it was men’s place to show up at all.

“I think it takes a lot of hubris to show up at an event in support of victims of sexual assault while knowing you’ve been significantly part of the problem in the past,” reflected Kirsty.

“It is possible that those people have seen recent events and had a change of heart, maybe, I don’t know, but I think for the most part, there’s a lot of people who want to seem publicly like they are progressive and on the right side of everything, when in reality it’s all performative.”

Credit: Alessandra Rizzi

Nikita also “saw a few of those guys and was extremely angry about it.” As a witness to how these men treat women, she felt like “it was just a joke that they turned up.”

“Some of their victims were at the walk that night and I spoke to one about it – she was uncomfortable and absolutely furious that he had the nerve to turn up. The whole point of the walk was to help women feel safe and secure, and I know that because of them, a lot of the girls there didn’t feel safe at all.”

Nikita continued. “I heard a rumour that one of the guys that turned up explicitly said he ‘didn’t belong there’ but came anyway. If that is true, it’s disgusting that he came, knowing what he’s done to women in the past and that it’s definitely not his place to be there.”

While these men’s attendance is something that “unfortunately can’t be controlled,” as Charlie said, it must nonetheless be horrific to have to face one’s attacker. “I can imagine no worse feeling than having to look my attacker in the eyes somewhere where I’m supposed to feel safe,” Nikita commented.

Although, for some, the presence of men who came with good intentions and to show genuine support was reassuring. “Personally, seeing men at the vigil gave me comfort and hope for the future,” said Anna.

Brodie also considered the importance of men’s presence at the walk: “The goal is to end violence against women. It’s imperative that men are involved in this process.”

To others, like Kirsty, men’s attendance was avoidable, albeit cherished: “I think it would have been better for men to not come along since the whole premise was to reclaim the streets from men, but I know there were a lot of guys there who were earnestly trying to be supportive, so I do appreciate that.”

Some of the men that attended manifested their encouragement by “making good points about how they want to practice how to non-threateningly walk behind women, and to discuss with women what they can do to make the streets safer,” as Deanna reported.

However, one key condition for their involvement in this event, according to most women that were interviewed, was to let women have the centre voice rather than taking the lead themselves: “I don’t find it wrong if a guy wants to support my fight, so long as he limits himself to solely support, not to take over,” expressed Alessandra.

MaleSupport4EqualityStirling, a student-led Instagram page created by men to educate other men on issues relating to equality, agrees: “We need to get more men involved. Not to take control over the movement, but to show that we care about these problems as well.”

While there are many men who express sincere support towards this cause and encourage women to speak out, the number of men attempting to take women’s voices away by participating in and supporting ‘#NotAllMen’ cannot be overlooked. 

This hashtag, which trended on social media platforms like Twitter soon after the news of Sarah broke out, sparked a significant discussion. The Stirling ‘Reclaim the Streets’ attendees that have been interviewed agree on this hashtag’s impropriety and its vile motive to shift the blame.

“I understand why some men are uncomfortable with being called out,” Mary-Kate acknowledged. “But in some form, they have probably been complicit in sexual assault, for example, by failing to call out their male friend’s inappropriate behaviour.”

Mary-Kate’s statement is consistent with The Guardian’s recent story, which reveals that 86% of women aged 18-24 reported being sexually harassed in public areas. One must stop and consider: if more people – not limited to men – were called out for their misplaced behaviour, the statistic might have been different.

Credit: Nikita Vance

But, while it is recognised that men also get assaulted and that ‘not all men’ harass women, it is also crucial to remember that, according to an ONS report, four times as many women experienced sexual assault or attempted sexual assault than men did, in 2020. 

“All men must take responsibility,” Deanna elaborated. “Just as women do when we walk home with our keys between our fingers, and our friends on the phone.”

This assertion explores the internalised and normalised behaviours that many – if not all – women perform, almost ritualistically, in order to feel safe when on a walk outside. These behaviours include: wearing flat shoes to make running away easier, listening to music through one earphone or on lower volume, and holding keys between knuckles.

“I hate the fact that these restrictions are institutionalised,” declared Alessandra. “A couple of days ago a male told me ‘if the situation is that bad, join a self-defence course.’ His tone was almost demanding, as if it was expected of us to learn martial arts and it was our fault that we could not react to violence.”

While being told to simply ‘protect yourself’ as a woman is problematic, what is worse is that no matter how many self-defence classes a woman takes, her safety is never assured. A woman being able to protect herself does not always prevent attackers from attacking.

“We could take every precaution when we’re out, and yet, something bad could still happen to us – even in daylight,” raised Mary-Kate.

Nikita concurred. “Women have been attacked at their most ‘undesirable’ (fully covered, no make-up, etc.) to their attackers, so this just proves that there’s nothing women can really do to deter an attacker in terms of how they dress.”

“Saying that the root of the problem is that women don’t know how to defend themselves is just an extremely twisted way of seeing reality or not understanding what the real cause is,” added MaleSupport4EqualityStirling.

What, then, if not women and their actions, can really spark change?

“Our attackers should be educated on basic human decency and respect. If you attack a woman, or anyone for that matter, you should be held entirely accountable for your actions,” explained Nikita.

When asked about the way forward, the most common replies were “education” and “holding men accountable”. But is it really that simple?

Lewis Mackin, a fourth-year student, questioned this. “I worry that they [men who harass/assault] simply don’t care about the consequences, so no matter the threat of life, or the potential threat of other men beating them up, they will just continue attacking women.”

Education and accountability, it appears, are only a part of the solution, as they only go so far. There are many more measures that need to be implemented, and different angles that need to be considered, in order to win this battle. 

A tiny, but nonetheless significant, action that should be taken is improving the safety of the Stirling University campus. As reviewed earlier in the article, two interviewees mentioned how much safer they felt walking around campus that night. This piece of information should not be pushed aside and ignored. 

“Back last year I lived in Spittal Hill and at one point there was an older man peeping through windows looking for girls,” shared Anna. “It was reported to police and campus security, and yet, there was still no security to be seen in the area. The uni need to employ more security on campus, and perhaps some kind of ‘Get-Safe’ programme to make women feel safer.”

Charlie sympathised with this idea and said that “a system with people to walk others home safely” would be “pretty beneficial.”

MaleSupport4EqualityStirling also proposes that “a network of people willing to walk others home at night” would be one step towards change. In addition, “the university could create some events or talks which talk about these issues.”

Nikita thinks that a way for the campus to be made safer would be “if the university actually dealt with sexual assault and violence cases in the proper manner. A lot of the time cases seem to be brushed off, or the guys just get a slap on the wrists.”

Credit: Alessandra Rizzi

She also said that the university “should install brighter lights around campus and increase the amount of them,” as there are “a lot of areas on campus that are dark and dodgy-looking.”

Deanna, too, believes that “motion-activated lights around the water” would be useful, as well as “more female security,” for she “would feel much safer if there was at least one woman on each night.”

She added that, in general, “we’re still so far away [from solving the issue of women’s lack of safety]” and that, to really tackle this problem, “there will always need to be more movements.”

Brodie thinks the same: “It has caused people to think, and if we can continue an organised, peaceful protest, we can keep the message alive.”

With a campus this beautiful must come a certain amount of safety. It is quite surprising that more lights have not yet been put around the campus, like around the lake. While it is true that there is wildlife that needs to be considered – how is it that the wildlife’s well-being is put ahead of student safety?

If there happened to be a case of assault or worse, would it be the student’s fault for taking a walk around the lake, say, late at night?

That should not be the case. A person should not have to worry about what lurks in the dark all the time, and they should absolutely not be blamed for their attack.

What is more, as has been mentioned by some of the students, the university should consider hosting events related to this topic in order to advance the conversation surrounding it. Events such as talks by people who wish to publicly speak up (as was done at the vigil, for instance), or maybe even support groups. Both of these could go a long way.

With the positive feedback ‘Reclaim the Streets’ has overall received, one would hope the spirit for such a campaign to live on rather than fade into the background like most movements unfortunately do.

But, just because it has happened before, does it mean that it will happen again, this time with ‘Reclaim the Streets’?

Kirsty seems to think so. While she states that she has definitely seen more discussion regarding this topic, she fears that people “will move on from it and think of it as ‘that thing that people were talking about online for that week in March’.”

It is the sad truth: in today’s day and age it is common for one movement to be briefly made more prominent – more mainstream – than other movements. “It’s difficult to focus on one issue for a long period of time,” explained MaleSupport4EqualityStirling. “The Internet and our short attention spans contribute to this a lot.”

Credit: Anna Robertson

It is therefore vital to keep this conversation alive, rather than to let it become something of the past – nothing will change otherwise.

Further, although it is hard to not feel helpless when a case like Sarah’s makes the news, it is important to remember that we, in fact, do have the power to help make the streets a safer place.

Whether it is lecturing friends about their inappropriate behaviour, making your voice heard by speaking out at events, holding a perpetrator accountable, helping someone who feels unsafe or cannot protect themselves, or even doing something as “small” as taking part in a movement like ‘Reclaim the Streets’… 

As long as we are taking steps forward – no matter if they are baby steps or bigger steps – we are on a walk towards a better and safer future.

For more information about these topics and potential upcoming movements, please acknowledge the following users on Instagram:

Featured Image Credit: Nikita Vance

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