“The men are a bit entitled here, aren’t they?” a friend whispered to me at the Sabina Nessa vigil last week.
We’d gathered at Peglar Square, near The Depot Bar in South East London, where Sabina had planned to meet a friend the week prior. She never made it there.
Organised by locals and stewarded by community collective Reclaim These Streets, the vigil saw more than 500 attendees.
One thing that a few of us in attendance noticed, was that the event was led predominantly by male figures. The person moderating the speakers was a white male, the majority of the speakers, including faith leaders, were men.
Many of the journalists and photographers who were pushing ahead through the crowd were also men. One of the cameramen who barged past hit me with his huge rucksack on the way to the front. Another knocked my bag down on the floor, taking me away from the homage to Sabina as I bent down to prop it up.
My friend and I noted how the men had felt entitled to move through the space past crying, hurting women.
Crucially, one of the speakers was a male, London Met police officer. Considering the indignation at Sarah Everard’s murderer – who was sentenced this week and was a police officer when he arrested and abducted her – many felt it was inappropriate.
While male presence is welcomed at such events and in conversations surrounding gender-based violence, most will argue that men should be listening – not taking centre stage.
Though grief has no gender, this time is especially sensitive for women who not only lament Sabina’s and Sarah’s deaths, but their own close encounters with violence and harassment.
The women and I attending knew it could easily have been one of our images lit up by the abundance of candles. After all, 97% of women have been sexually harassed at some point.
Often after gendered violence such as in Sabina and Sarah’s cases, the response can also be male-centric, as hashtags such as #notallmen start trending.
Let’s also not forget that law enforcement, following gender violence, is often made up of men too. We certainly saw this during Sarah’s vigil in March, where the majority of police officers who clashed with female protestors were male.
In the same way conversations about anti-racism can be hijacked by admissions of having white privilege (without white people actively doing anything about it), gender violence discourse may focus on men too much, whether it’s educating them, arguing with them, and even centering them.
These reactions can be exhausting for women and a distraction from the cause.
Writer Shahed Ezaydi, 26, from Sheffield, says having to constantly educate men about gendered violence can make the issue feel all about them.
“Even though I do think men need to be present and active in some of these conversations, there’s a difference between being present and listening and then taking up space that isn’t yours,” she tells HuffPost.
“Every time a case like Sarah’s or Sabina’s hits the headlines, I have men in my life saying ‘but what can we do? we’re not like these people’ and it’s so tiring having to explain again and again that yes, you may not turn around and physically hurt a woman, but that’s the extreme outcome of a misogynistic society.”
Having to explain how misogyny starts in schools and how patriarchy is enabled within society is “exhausting”, adds Ezaydi. “Surely me as a woman explaining to men and effectively educating them is yet another symptom of the system we live in,” she says.
“Because when you say to some of them that there are plenty of resources out there and they just need to go looking for it – because I don’t have the emotional capacity to break this down – some men turn defensive and hostile as if I owe them an explanation.”
Dr Rachel Fenton, a senior lecturer from The University of Exeter, whose research areas are in gender and the law, says it can be a balancing act to bring men into collective grief. We don’t want them to be alienated from the movement, but they need to take on an appropriate role.
“It is really important that we engage men in the collective fight to end violence against women: men really are part of the solution,” she says.
“However, having said that, it’s crucial that we remember that violence against women is an epidemic which is perpetrated predominantly by men and caused by deeply-rooted sexism, misogyny, gender inequality and sense of male entitlement to women’s bodies.
“With that in mind in times of collective grief resulting from fatal gender violence, men might do best to remember that and act sensitively, preferring to primarily engage in self-reflection and consider their own complicity and own attitudes towards women and their own privilege and sense of entitlement, before they reach to occupy physical space and centre themselves.”
In the aftermath of gender violence, men should actively listen to the women in their lives, adds Dr Fenton. “They should ask about women’s experiences of safety and inform themselves about the issues women face on a daily basis,” she says. “Listen and not centre themselves and try not to be defensive.”
Crucially, men should be able to self-reflect without taking up space.
“Men can work on being part of the solution: they should be prepared to do some soul searching and self-reflection on their own behaviours and complicity in sexism and violence against women. They should consider whether they have ever objectified women, pushed or manipulated women into sexual acts, touched someone without their consent. The list is endless. Only then can men really begin to engage in a truly meaningful way.”
When I contacted Reclaim These Streets about the visibility of men over women at Sabina’s vigil, they explained that they did not decide on the line-up of speakers, it was decided by many first-time community organisers. All attendees were well-meaning and no movement was carried out maliciously.
Still, the dominance of male journalists, photographers and police officers was a reminder that this violence does not occur in a vacuum – it exists in a world entrenched in inequality. Women do not need to “take up space” – we need men to recognise the need to step back.
Help and support:
- Victim Support - Visit victimsupport.org.uk or call 0808 168 9111 Sexual Abuse Referral Centres - Find a SARC
- Rape Crisis - Visit rapecrisis.org.uk or call 0808 802 9999 The Rape and Abuse Line - Visit rapeandabuseline.co.uk or call 0808 800 0123 (answered by women) or 0808 800 0122 (answered by men).