The tragic and senseless murder of a woman in south London has sparked a new wave of anger against gender-based violence. Sarah Everard, 33, was walking home one evening when she was abducted and murdered. The alleged perpetrator is a man who was, at the time, serving as a Metropolitan Police officer.
The randomness and cruelty of Everard’s murder has led to thousands of women denouncing the ubiquity of male violence and the perpetual feeling of being at risk of falling victim to it. As one woman tweeted: What is so frightening about Sarah’s murder is that it could have been any one of us.
To make matters worse, the murder was followed by an outrageous display of state sanctioned police violence, directed at peacefully assembled women who wished to grieve in unison. As night fell over London, police descended on a vigil held at Clapham Common, a large park near the site of Everard’s abduction.
The images of the vigil captured and widely shared over social media, show several officers roughly manhandling women as they are put under arrest. The dark irony of this grotesque display of violence—Everard’s alleged killer being a member of the police himself—illustrates the systemic and institutional misogyny and sexism that women (including trans women) face.
Indeed, women not only face the routine violence of men, but also of the male-dominated institutions that, far from protecting them, help sustain patriarchy and other forms of oppression.
A silent epidemic
It is no stretch to claim that violence against women is similar in proportion to the current viral pandemic sweeping the globe. In the United Kingdom, a woman is killed every three days. In Canada, a woman or girl is killed every two-and-a-half days on average, with more than 90 percent of perpetrators being men.
In more than 60 percent of cases, women are murdered by their partners or ex-partners. Worldwide, six women are killed by a man every hour. Femicide is a silent epidemic that is taking the lives the tens of thousands of women and girls every year.
Femicide is not uncommon in Canada, where Indigenous women in particular face an increased risk—12 to 16 times more than other women—of being murdered. Marginalized women, such as sex workers also face and accentuated risk of violence, and like Indigenous women and girls, this violence is systematically overlooked by police and authorities.
In Québec, domestic violence has made headlines in recent weeks given that five women were murdered by their partners in the last month alone. Given the unprecedented level of coercive control offered by the pandemic lockdowns, experts in domestic violence fear that there will be an increase in gender-based violence when measures are eased.
Femicide, however, is at the extreme end of the spectrum of gendered violence. The thousands of testimonies published in the wake of Everard’s death show the pervasiveness of casual male violence as well as the generalized acceptance that women must police and adapt their behaviours to ensure their own safety.
A few observers compiled lists on social media of the things women do to feel safe in public spaces. These things include clutching keys between their knuckles, keeping to well-lit streets even if it means taking a detour, wearing comfortable shoes in case they need to run, texting friends, getting off public transport before their stop, and so on. In short, these behaviours demonstrate how women have learned to structure their lives around the possibility of male violence.
The prevalence of gendered violence, ranging from intimate partner abuse to street harassment, effectively means that women’s safety is undermined whether in public or private spaces. Yet, as recent events have shown, this deplorable fact remains largely unchallenged within mainstream society. Accordingly, women and many men are now calling for collective action to dismantle the oppressive power and institutional structures that uphold patriarchal norms.
Recognizing institutional violence and misogyny
Beyond the abhorrence of her murder, the events surrounding Everard’s death at the hands of a police officer have shed a harsh light on the institutional violence that underpins patriarchal society.
In her 1989 book Misogynies, feminist reporter Joan Smith wrote of the extent of institutional misogyny in Western societies, drawing on poignant examples of male violence in the police, military and popular culture. Her work paints a troubling portrait of institutional hatred, fear and outright disregard for the lives of women.
Sadly, things have changed very little in the 30 years since the publication of Smith’s book. The police brutality witnessed at the London vigil for Everard is just the tip of an iceberg. In addition to posing a real threat to those who engage in protest and activism, police officers are two to four times more likely to commit acts of domestic violence. In fact, evidence shows that police not only pose a risk to women, they habitually overlook the crimes of other men directed towards them.
In Canada, police—including the RCMP—are routinely accused of sexual abuse and violence while often showing negligence and racism in relation to violence perpetrated against Indigenous women and girls. We now know that over a period of eight years, more than 500 Indigenous women and girls disappeared or were murdered (the actual number is presumed to be much higher). We also know that police failed to notice and investigate these appalling crimes despite the alarmingly high numbers.
Sexual abuse and violence are also still commonplace in the military. On average, 178 women come forward every year to claim they have been abused during their service in the Canadian military. To this, add the innumerable crimes committed or suspected to have been committed by Canadian forces abroad.
In Canada, as elsewhere, rape is still a largely unreported crime, with only six percent of cases reported to police. Reports of rape are in fact so rare, that the UK’s sexual assault commissioner has spoken about the effective decriminalization of the offence. In Canada, of the six percent of reported rapes, less than 25 percent have resulted in a conviction.
Challenging systemic violence
In the days following Everard’s murder, the hashtag #NotAllMen trended on Twitter, in sharp contrast to the harrowing testimonies shared by women. Many men took offence to the idea that they were personally responsible for perpetuating patriarchal violence.
As women highlighted their fear of walking alone at night, many of them felt the need to express hurt at the notion that they were the source of such fear—expressing offence that women would feel the need to cross the street or accelerate to pass them. These comments point to a lack of understanding of the nature of systemic violence and patriarchal culture. It is the same lack of understanding which underpins discussions around institutional racism and other forms of systemic oppression.
Systemic violence is defined as “the harm people suffer from the social structure and the institutions sustaining and reproducing it.” Patriarchy is a social structure founded on the dehumanization of women, just as capitalism dehumanizes working people. In both cases, the system inherently undervalues and harms those it seeks to exclude from power. By perpetuating and consolidating the fears and violence experienced by women, patriarchy greatly inhibits their freedom and creativity. In other words, patriarchy aims to disposes women of their agency.
The responsibility for social structures lies not with individuals, but with society as a whole. Men, as members of that society, bear equal responsibility for challenging the structures that undermine the rights and freedoms of others. Patriarchal culture is also responsible for brutalizing young men, thereby desensitizing them to casual and widespread violence. Encouragingly, this fact is increasingly recognized, and recent public discourse has focused on the need to educate young men on the harm caused by patriarchal structures and norms.
As patriarchy is profoundly harmful to both men and women, we ought to be working together to challenge it. This epidemic of gendered violence needs to be publicly acknowledged and named. Further, this acknowledgement is an imperative in a context where solidarity is needed to engage in political struggles against the destruction and existential threat posed by capitalism and xenophobia.
Women’s ability to be effective political agents depends on their safety and agency. As a sign at the Everard vigil read “Women don’t want to be brave, they want to be free.” That freedom entails the ability to stand shoulder to shoulder with men in public spaces in our fight for justice.
Elizabeth Leier is a freelance journalist and graduate student at Concordia University in Montreal. Her interests include international politics, foreign policy and climate justice. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethELeier.