FF Report of the Reclaim the Night March (2008)
A direct challenge to direct and indirect threats of violence against women and an insistence on our safety and freedom in every sphere of life is fundamental to feminism, and so we are proud to join this action to ensure women’s safety wherever they go, and to raise awareness of the strength and solidarity of the women’s movement. We value the feeling of solidarity on a march with many women from different political spheres. We absolutely concur with RtN’s criticism of low rape convictions and poor media representation of women affected by rape, especially in the current political climate where cuts to rape support services are making it more and more difficult for survivors of abuse to access the help they need.
Like X:talk (a sex worker self-organised group that provides English classes for migrant sex workers), Feminist Fightback is absolutely against violence towards women, and in meetings this generally means we have a consensus to continue going on the Reclaim the Night march. As our position on sex work remains controversial in certain London feminist circles, we also agree that it is important to demonstrate this position when at RtN, in conjunction with the ‘red umbrella’ marchers, through chants, banners, and the symbolic red umbrellas.
We also feel that a visible sex worker presence on the march is imperative given the route the march takes through Central London, passing directly through the red light district (and until 2010 past Spearmint Rhino which raised the problem of critical and unsisterly remarks being made by a few members of the march towards the women working at the club).
However, there are a number of questions to be answered regarding RtN and Feminist Fightback. At the moment none of these problems necessarily preclude our involvement with the march, but they make it imperative to continue an open debate on the subject.
Who is the march for?
RtN does not necessarily directly acknowledge that most violence against women takes place within their own homes and is perpetrated by people women know and trust. Also, its focus on ‘stranger danger’ ignores the fact that more street attacks are against men than women. Statistically, people who identify as LGBTQ also face an increased risk of violence from strangers.
The march is only open to women and the statement on its website has now been amended to : ‘All women are welcome at Reclaim the Night, including: women of all colours and cultures, of all religions or none, women of any age, disabled women, able-bodied women, heterosexual women, lesbians, trans women, bisexual women, refugee and asylum-seeking women and any other women you can think of!’ RtN has been criticised by queer and transgender groups for the limitations of its engagement with the trans ‘community’ and its related movements. While the invitation is now worded to include as many self-identifying women as possible, it is very loose and still poses problems by its division by ‘gender’ into women and men.
Gender binaries and feminism also raise the question RtN’s on-going relevance as an organising method. Is it still necessary for women to show a women-only presence on the streets of Soho and Central London? Who does RtN address, if anyone? In an age of media-encouraged ‘victim-blaming’, high-profile cases against people who have made rape allegations and continued low rape conviction rates, is it possible to improve the campaign to target those who police, prosecute and fund victim/survivor support more directly? Perhaps we should also consider using the march to publicise the ways that government cuts have reduced access to rape/violence support services, and to highlight what we can do to fight this problem?
For anti-capitalist feminists, it is important that we avoid framing the dangers women face as entirely caused by men, and instead try to contextualise violence faced by women within an understanding of society as structured around the explicit and implicit threat of violence, deliberately divisive along class, ethnic and gendered lines.
Any debate on violence against women needs to take this social context into account, rather than polarising the debate into women as victims/survivors and men as attackers. The ‘women-only’ rule opens up problems of gender binaries even as it provides a safe space for women and marks our presence. The debate continues…
RtN and sex work…?
Organised feminism in London sometimes reflects a deeply problematic view on sex work, focusing on a perception of sex-work as synonymous with violence against women, rather than reflecting on sex work’s position within industrial movements and the drive to improve the economic position of women (and others) who sell sex or work in related industries. Fightback is committed to continuing the debate on women, sex work and feminism, and to solidarity with sex workers’ efforts to gain equal representation as workers. Fightback supports sex workers’ rights to unionise and sees this as the best way to empower sex workers themselves into fight exploitation in the industry. For us this means complete decriminalisation of sex work, as well as a re-examination of the whole debate. We do not ignore the risk of violence faced by some sex workers at work and in their daily lives, and as such it is clear to us that there is an important role for sex workers organising within the feminist movement, and a particularly strong argument for their presence on the Reclaim the Night march.
As well as insisting that sex workers are represented a Reclaim the Night, we want a space to debate this matter in safety with other feminists. However for the last two years a portion of the march has showed itself unreceptive and unfriendly to the Red Umbrella marchers, and to those marching with them under the slogan ‘Wherever we work, wherever we go/ Yes means Yes and No means No.’ (These problems are detailed below.) We insist that no feminist march against rape can be effective while sex workers are excluded.
Problems for Fightback people on the march itself…
In 2008 Fightback attended Reclaim the Night alongside a large contingent of sex workers from from XTalk project and the International Union of Sex Workers, carrying red umbrellas to demonstrate solidarity with our sisters working in the sex industry. We came back again in 2009, and after the march sent a message criticising the negative reception of the Fightback/ Red Umbrella contingent at Reclaim the Night, which is reproduced on the X:talk website.
“Nothing in the publicity for the march bans those with our views, nor do we feel our politics to in any way contradict the spirit of an anti-violence march.
Unfortunately, we faced physical harassment and verbal abuse from some people on the march, and were told on a number of occasions that we were not welcome on it. Worse than this, however, was the fact that we were immediately approached and interrogated by the police on arrival – reportedly at the request of one of the stewards.”
Unfortunately, the problems with a small minority of Reclaim the Night marchers have persisted. The incidents described here happened in 2008, 2009 and again in 2010. Each time, Fightback supporters were present on the march, together with a ‘red umbrella’ contingent. While many – even most – women on the march were either friendly or did not let their disagreement with our politics conflict with our presence on the march, both years a small minority has received our contingent with harassment, swearing, spitting and trying to bar us from marching, including by asking the police to remove us from the march. The organisers of RtN have not responded to our messages about these incidents and have refused to engage with us about how to prevent these issues arising again. It is imperative that they do so, and that we are able to discuss our difference while uniting against violence towards women.
We feel that as long as we agree with the aim of the march as set out in organisers’ publicity, we should feel safe on the march. The contradictory nature of women attacking other women on a march against violence towards women risks making a mockery of the RtN project. While Fightback generally agrees its presence at RtN is useful and should be continued, it is outrageous that we must continue debating our presence in terms of our safety on the march, and the discomfort and anxiety experienced by members of our contingent over the last two years.
It’s worth remembering that in a diverse crowd like Reclaim the Night, most women are supportive of our presence. However this abuse by a minority remains unacceptable and deeply dispiriting. We think the RtN march is important – both in terms of the message that women should walk the streets in safety and as a visible and lively feminist political space – and that is why we continue to attend. And so now we would like the organisers of the march and its supporters to undertake to work with us, and to open a dialogue about how such abuse can be prevented in the future.