Why Women Claim Public Spaces As Our Own


The death of Jillian Meagher has shaken and touched Melbournians. People want to do something with the grief, anger, and sadness they feel. It is a testament to the beauty and strength of Melbourne’s residents that most of that action reflects a desire to make meaning of things in a positive way; to stand in solidarity with Jillian’s family and friends through flower tributes, moving prose and memorials, and by speaking out about the broader issue of violence against women. Marches and rallies promoting peace and the right of women to walk safely in the streets have been, or are being, planned.

Among these is a Reclaim the Night march, drawing on a long tradition of marches that arose during the second wave of feminism in the 1960s. Reclaim the Night marches are historically organised, run, and attended by women only. Their purpose is to assert women’s equal human rights by laying our equal claim to the public space — without depending on men’s permission.

In 2012 — and in particular this week — large numbers of men have expressed a desire to participate in the march. It has been no surprise to me that almost all women in the generation below me think men’s participation is welcome and imperative; however the historical exclusion of men from these events did not occur in some rabid feminist, male-hating vacuum. Before considering how practices of the past might be reconciled with practices in the future, it is imperative to understand where women-only events and spaces originated from.

When the second wave of feminism came about, women argued that they had been so dominated and suppressed in society that they wanted spaces where they could think through issues, find their own voices, and decide for themselves — without men driving the agenda.

Patriarchy is a system that encourages a normative view that enables men to have power over women. This doesn’t mean every man will exert that power in a negative way, just as it doesn’t mean that every white person is evil in a racist world. What it does mean is that all those who are privileged in the dominant social circumstances — such as men in a patriarchy — benefit from that system, while often denying its existence.

There is a plethora of research from last century to show that in dual sex spaces, boys dominate talk, ideas, and decision making. In a patriarchy, both men and women learn their roles. To a large extent, the second wave of feminism was about challenging these "taken for granted" roles; including women’s historical role of turning to men or the male space for "permission".

In the late twentieth century, women leaders wanted the chance to think out loud without the criticism of patriarchal institutions — such as the media — curbing their ability to define women’s roles in new ways. But most importantly, they didn’t want to have to seek men’s permission to act in relation to their own human rights. It was absolutely critical that "helpful" men didn’t step in and drive and decide the agenda.

Men were often offended and affronted by women’s only events and spaces. Women’s efforts to assert power over themselves and their own lives were undermined in myriad ways. Feminists were caricatured as man-hating, hairy-legged abominations. The patriarchy told us there were "good women" (who were heterosexual, adhered to proper beauty standards, were married or looking for a suitable husband, and waited for their rights) and "bad women" (who had taken things too far).

Our feminist foremothers fought the effects of patriarchy among both men and women: part of patriarchy’s tactics was to divide and conquer, with "good women" critiquing the behaviours of "bad women". It is in this context that women’s only spaces took on such significance.

When movements of liberation are gearing up or occurring, the importance of separate spaces cannot be underestimated. Diasporic slave communities, Indigenous communities and LGBTI communities have all struggled to articulate, own, and represent themselves in ways that aren’t invidiously influenced or straight out censored by dominant white, straight, patriarchal agendas. These safe spaces have been used to think through and challenge ideas that have been sold as common sense.

For example, patriarchal ideology tells us that women invite attack, through their behaviour and dress, from men who cannot be expected to help themselves.

Therefore it makes common sense to counsel women that they can be helped to live free from violence if they simply behave according to appropriate feminine standards. That women might wear short skirts and red lipstick, and march in the night time without male chaperones and male permission flies in the face of this historical common sense.

A further popular means through which patriarchal society tries to minimise the appearance that violence is one of its pervasive strategies is by suggesting that there are only a few errant men who offend publicly (stranger danger) while the vast majority of men behave.

Of course, we know that violence is an institutional problem. Most women are violated by men they know in the private space. Reclaim the Night insists that women have every entitlement to public space, and that it is theirs to claim, without the need to seek permission or conform to a particular standard of appropriate female behaviour.

So where might men’s participation fit in a 2012 march?

Much has changed in the past 60 years, including the attitudes of society generally and of many men. I would never argue, and think it is disingenuous to argue, that little has changed for women; my life, and the life of many of my friends, is a testament to that change. However change is slow and erratic; and it favours some over others.

One thing that hasn’t changed are the ideas that patriarchy promotes to undo feminist change. And among those ideas is a persistent claim that the battle has already been won; that feminism is no longer necessary. Many of the young people with whom I’ve worked in higher education consider themselves liberated from gender politics and believe that violence against either men or women is the same kind of infraction.

Yes — all violence is bad. However it is pivotal to recognise discourses of discrimination that systematically disempower particular groups through violence. Marginalised groups commonly live with the pervasive threat of violence (or violence itself) which operates to encourage the self regulation of their behaviours. Violence against women is disproportionately perpetrated by men. To recoil from naming institutionalised, political violence in big or small forms that privileges some groups over others is, I think, to ignore social injustice.

Gender disparity is effected through thousands of big and small acts every day. I have been lucky enough to grow up in an era where legislative inequality has been largely challenged (at least on its face). I’ve had the benefit of a quality education and I’ve made hundreds of choices that were not available to my mother; I have the women’s movement and all the men who supported it to thank for that.

However continuing forms of oppression — unequal wages, a continuing gendered segregation of labour, the legislating of women’s body rights, and violence and objectifying practices designed to keep women in their place, are keen reminders that gender inequity is social and institutional. It is not, as patriarchal ideology would have us believe, just in the minds of a few women who take things "too far".

It has always been the case that individuals from more privileged groups have supported, assisted, and even sometimes given their lives in support of social justice causes.

Personally, I feel humbled to see the number of men who have spoken up this week about the issue of violence against women and its unacceptability — it is definitely a different world to the one my mother grew up in. I think anybody who is prepared to challenge discriminatory social discourses, even if they are privileged by them, should be included in the movement for change.

However participation and entitlement are not the same thing. Men should not be allowed to speak for women. For example, I do not think it is acceptable for the men interested in supporting a Reclaim The Night march to decide the parameters of the march, including whether or not they should be allowed to march. Male marchers need to be respectful of the terms upon which women are marching.

When I work and activate with my friends, loved ones and colleagues in Aboriginal, LGBTI, or migrant politics, I recognise that I am being invited in. I do not walk in their shoes and I do not speak for them. My obligation is to listen to the impact of their lived experiences and to privilege their understandings of those experiences. It is also to share whatever knowledge and skills I can in order to help bring about change. I consider it a privilege and a responsibility to create change in terms that respect their voices.

Reclaim The Night is a march with a particular purpose. That purpose has been debated, refined, and developed over decades by women who struggled to assert their rights in circumstances where they were characterised as bad for doing so. Reclaim the Night does not seek to protect women, or to demand that a few rogue men should be put in jail; it highlights violence as a social and institutional issue — as an exercise of patriarchal power. Women are marching to claim the public space, with or without men’s permission.

Very importantly, Reclaim The Night should not carry messages that re-inscribe old fashioned stereotypes about women and how they should behave. There is a real danger that, in their efforts to ensure male relatives and friends feel comfortable and welcome at the march, women will seek to promote a more general message about non violence, and dilute down the fact that violence against women is a gendered issue and that most violence against women is perpetrated by men. Such a step would simply be "permission seeking" in another form. However, if the core values of Reclaim The Night can be maintained, I will be thankful, excited, and joyful to participate in a march with both men and women in October 2012.

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