The right to walk alone without fear

The Reclaim the Night marches through night-time city centres tap into a righteous and rising anger, and are a way to highlight that women have a human right to live free from the threat or reality of male violence.

Finn Mackay
26 November 2014
Women marching in the dark with an 'End Violence Against Women' placard visible

Reclaim the Night March, London 2014.November is a month of pumpkins, treacle toffee and fireworks here in the UK as we celebrate the only man to ever enter parliament with honourable intentions. But as the month draws to a close, all over the world, another key date is marked; the United Nations International Day to End Violence Against Women on the 25th November and the 16 Days of Action which link that date with the 10th December, Global Human Rights Day. This linkage nicely illustrates the point that women’s rights are human rights too, and should also remind us that this point is by no means a given, and in fact remains a goal yet to be achieved. This history of human rights, like all other history, has been one that revolves around a male subject, a male norm, to which woman has been object and less than human.

Feminism is a claim to women’s subjectivity, a claim to women’s human-ness and with that it is a movement for the whole of humanity. This is one of the oldest struggles the world has known and our successes, of which there are many, are always met with knee-jerk backlash, with renewed attack disguised as resistance. Men as a sex-class are threatened by feminism, because they rightly understand that this powerful social movement exists to remove privilege from that class. And although not all men benefit from male privilege equally, they get quite defensive over what varying amount they do enjoy.

Meanwhile women progress onwards, in spite of the odds stacked against us and to spite a culture that says we were never meant to achieve, that says we are worth less than a man, in every sphere – economically, legally, intellectually. When political ‘clicktavism’ is no longer enough, women put down their online petitions for a while and turn to political activism and back to the retro-feminism of demonstrations and pickets that shaped our movement and smoothed the way for us. And this month, we remember, remember the 12th November and the flaming torches that lit our path and started a worldwide Reclaim the Night movement against rape and all forms of male sexual violence against women.

In Leeds in 1977, Revolutionary Feminists were looking for a new area of action to really fire people up and they found inspiration in earlier protests that year which had taken place in West Germany. In April that year fellow activists had organised synchronised midnight marches across towns and cities in West Germany, to protest levels of sexual harassment and to demand the right to walk alone without fear. They painted women’s symbols on their faces, they carried flaming torches and chanted: ‘we are not here to be looked over like cattle, we are not pieces of meat’.

This physical taking back of space appealed to activists in the UK, particularly in the North of England, gripped as it was at that time with a national man-hunt for Britain’s most notorious serial killer, Peter Sutcliffe. The so-called Yorkshire Ripper took the lives of thirteen women between 1975 and 1980 and cast a long shadow over the whole country. Feminists were angered by the slow police response to these murders, to the lacklustre attitude towards early victims and a sense that the state only really paid attention when young student women were targeted rather than the women involved in prostitution who they treated as expendable. In the face of police advice that women should stay indoors and not go out at night unless escorted by a man, the idea of taking to the streets en masse with flaming torches was inspiring. 

Photo of smiling woman

The first co-ordinated Reclaim the Night marches were held in Britain on the 12th November 1977, including many towns and cities such as London, Lancaster, Brighton, Bristol, York, Newcastle, Bradford, Guildford, Salisbury and Manchester. But the marches were born in Leeds. It was women like Al Garthwaite Al Garthwaite who put this protest on the map and turned the UK march into an inspiration for the world. Along with others in the collective producing the UK Women’s Liberation Movement newsletter – WIRES, which stood for the Women’s Information Referral and Enquiry Service, Garthwaite took charge of formally calling and coordinating support for the first Reclaim the Night march. Not to be outdone by German Sisters, she also sourced flaming torches, with the help of the local telephone directory and a well-stocked garden centre with an early interest in outdoor lighting. Leeds at this time was a hotbed of feminist activity of all schools and tendencies, as well as being home to one of the first and perhaps most famous Revolutionary Feminist groups, due not only to their leadership of Reclaim the Night but also to their publication of an infamous conference paper on political lesbianism.

Photo of marchers in a city street at night

The Reclaim the Night marches continued across the UK, and acted as an inspiration for women in Canada, America, India and all over as the protest tactic marched across the globe. Sometimes the marches were held in response to high profile rape cases, or in defence of women’s services, but always they were to highlight that women have a right to live free from the threat or reality of male violence. The marches were physical and visible incursions into urban public space that at that time was almost exclusively male. Nothing much has changed with the marches of today. Reclaim the Night marchers file through Trafalgar Square. Photo: Charlotte Barnes. All rights reserved.

After a bit of a lull in the 1990s, the Reclaim the Night marches were revived again in 2004, including in London by the London Feminist Network. A small gathering of fifty women marched from Euston to Soho, sticking to the pavements and clutching candles and tea-lights rather than flaming torches; but more were to follow. The next year the march numbers leapt to five hundred and the following year to over a thousand, eventually growing to over 5000 women closing down all the streets on the route and starting in famous locations in central London surrounding Westminster, such as Trafalgar Square and Whitehall. The revived London march inspired similar in other towns and cities, with marches springing up in all places from Aberdeen to Devon including many sites enjoying their first ever marches and all of them bigger than those of the 1970s and 1980s. It seemed the protest tapped into a rising and righteous anger, as the recent resurgence of feminism surfaced. Now it provides an opportunity for consciousness raising, for solidarity building, for recruitment into the movement and it wends its way through night-time city centres loudly proving that feminism is alive and kicking. This year the revived London Reclaim the Night marked it's tenth anniversary on 22nd November, when more than two thousand women attended the march, with representation from many different organisations and groups from all over the UK and many women attending their first Reclaim the Night".

For many marchers the protest is a memorial. It is a chance to remember the lives lost, the women who didn’t make it, those sisters taken by male violence. Younger women who enjoy a changed urban landscape, a night time economy supposedly accessed by all, often march to highlight that they do not feel safe in their city. They march loud and proud and angry for once, calling out a culture that requires them to plan in advance for predators by carrying their keys in their hands, keeping rape alarms, paying for taxis or taking longer but lit routes home. All this as if urban space itself, so much concrete and steps and streets, is dangerously gendered, presenting some biohazard to the female sex. For other protestors this march is a show of defiance. For those who live on in spite of the violence they have faced, the march is a physical take-back, shining a light on the cowardice of rapists and abusers. Reclaim the Night is a bold statement against victim-blaming, it shifts shame to where it belongs, to perpetrators and to a society that condones them. While many would never excuse male sexual violence, few speak out against the sexual objectification of women, against the normalisation of the industries of prostitution and pornography or against the continuing inequalities that benefit men. We live in a conducive context for male violence against women, an unnatural situation of male supremacy that can and must be un-made. Politicising and empowering women is one step on the way, and each Reclaim the Night march is a move in that direction. Join us – the Women’s Movement needs you.

Read more articles in 50.50's series on 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence 2014

Finn Mackay’s book on the history, present and future of Reclaim the Night and the wider Women’s Liberation Movement launches in February 2015 from Palgrave – “Radical Feminism: Activism in movement”.

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