50.50: Opinion

If I die at the hands of a man, I don’t want a vigil. I want a riot

I went to Ashling Murphy’s vigil this weekend. Every single woman’s murder, whether a teacher or a sex worker, at 3am or 3pm, is political

Janey Starling
17 January 2022, 12.08pm
Vigil for Ashling Murphy at the Guildhall in Derry, Northern Ireland, 14 January 2022
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Mickey Rooney / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

I’m not going to another vigil. I don’t want to stand silently in the cold holding flowers. Every time another woman is murdered, I want to run into the street and release a primal scream of rage.

It is time for this era of vigils – kickstarted by Sarah Everard’s murder and reinforced by Sabina Nessa’s and Ashling Murphy’s – to end. These vigils-not-protests, the liberal love child of respectability politics and coronavirus regulations, have muted our collective anger. We travel on currents of heartbreak and anger to stand with our sisters outside in the cold, only to return home aching with impotent rage while the structures of power that are killing us remain undented.

Men kill women because our society builds men that kill women. If we have a hope of stopping more women dying, it’s not through vigils or criminal sanctions for killers. Even if a murderer gets a life sentence, the conditions that create killers are still in operation. It’s only a matter of time until the next murder.

We need to rip up the roots of the problem, and overhaul this world built for men. Gender-based violence is baked into our social structures, norms and attitudes, which interlock with white supremacy and capitalism to devalue women’s lives. Meanwhile, a racialised and class-based hierarchy determines whose murders get front-page news, and who gets a vigil.

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The public vigils we’ve seen in the past year were all sparked by the deaths of women killed in public places. If we mobilised every time a woman was killed by a man, there would be hundreds of events every year. Two women a week are murdered by a partner or ex-partner in England and Wales. To stop women dying, we need public outrage not just for the women killed in public, but for those killed in their own homes. Our heartbreak cannot be reserved solely for women that the white middle-class media sympathises with.

We must collectively grieve for migrant women such as Urantsetseg Tserendorj, whose violent killing in Dublin last year saw no national vigil. We must collectively grieve for Black women such as Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, murdered in a London park and abused after death by police officers.

Every single woman’s death, whether a teacher or a sex worker, whether at 3am or 3pm, whether in the street or in her home, is a political touchpoint to push for systemic change. Our struggles are connected, and our murders are too.

Police and state violence

Justice isn’t polite public vigils for every single woman killed. It’s joining the dots between the murders of all women and acknowledging that these deaths are political. It’s time to channel our grief into political strategy. Gender-based violence operates on a spectrum, at all levels of society from interpersonal to institutional, and is scaffolded by the state’s own violent infrastructure, from policing to prisons.

As we stand and cry together in the cold, the state hijacks women’s deaths to strengthen this scaffolding of control. When Sarah Everard was murdered, the British government capitalised on public ‘stranger danger’ panic to railroad its expansion of policing and surveillance.

The UK Home Office invited the public to respond to a consultation on its new violence against women and girls (VAWG) strategy, but it turned out to be a figleaf to legitimise further funding and authority being handed to the police – who are already drunk on the powers they have. This sits alongside the draconian new Police Bill (currently going through the House of Lords), which will demand that women planning to protest will have to ask permission from the police, or face police violence themselves.

The same police who brutalised women at Clapham Common, who are charged with rape, who ignore domestic abuse survivors’ pleas until it’s too late, and whose own partners and families are coming forward to report abuse in their homes, are supposedly central to a strategy for our safety.

It’s time to release our rage because our collective grief is incendiary. The Clapham Common vigil led by Sisters Uncut was liberatory in its vocal defiance at police attempts to stop women gathering. The police violence that night shows us that the state will only tolerate our grief when we’re quiet and go home on time, but not when we stand up and claim our right to public life in courageous resistance to the systems that kill us.

We will no longer be reduced to weeping women. We will not ask permission to protest. We will take direct action

We will no longer be reduced to weeping women. We will not ask permission to protest. We will take direct action. We will not just demand not to die. We will demand the means we need to live: that our schools teach consent, that our rape crisis centres are funded properly, that there is enough housing so that domestic abuse survivors can flee danger.

We will demand that men intervene in each other’s violence, at all levels. We will build solidarity networks and support for our communities. We will resist the ongoing ‘hostile environment’. We will picket our local newspapers until they stop blaming women for their own deaths.

Sisterhood builds power

Our collective grief is the cement we need to build sisterhood because that is how we build power. The might of our solidarity will shatter the whole system, but only if we do the vital, uncomfortable work of recognising our personal roles in maintaining systemic violence against women. If we leave a sister behind, the structures still stand for all of us.

When migrant women are hounded by the hostile environment, when sex workers are shamed, when trans women are vilified, when Muslim women are patronised, when women in prison are forgotten – the structures that are killing us all still stand. It is only when we unite across our differences that the scaffolding will begin to creak.

As I stood amid crowds holding flowers and candles at Ashling Murphy’s vigil, Black lesbian poet Pat Parker’s poem ‘Womanslaughter’ came to mind:

I have gained many sisters
And if one of them is beaten,
Or raped, or killed,
I will not come in mourning black.
I will not pick the right flowers.
I will not celebrate her death
and it will matter not
if she’s Black or white
if she loves women or men
I will come with my many sisters
and decorate the streets
with the innards of those
brothers in womanslaughter.

If I die at the hands of a man, I don’t want a vigil. I want a riot.

Please, no more vigils. May we heed the final words of ‘Womanslaughter’: “I will come to my sisters, not dutiful, I will come strong.” As we face new protest laws, may we come defiant.

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