Image Credit: Luke Snell
It has been said so many times by so many others, but this week has made a complete mockery of International Women’s Day, truly exposing the depth of misogyny that remains ingrained in British society today.
The situation was bad enough following the backlash against Meghan Markle’s admission that she had suicidal thoughts while pregnant; then the highly distressing news that Sarah Everard’s remains had been found - and that the murderer is thought to be a policeman.
But the scenes of police aggression at the Sarah Everard vigil in Clapham Common and the anti-protest bill that was passed through its second reading last night takes this to a new level, by attacking our ability to advocate for our rights.
The proposed Police, Sentencing and Court Bill would give the home secretary the power to create laws defining ‘serious disruption’ which the police could then use to suppress protests. The discourse around police suppression of protests has largely used lockdown and the fear of Covid-19 super-spreading as a key reason for intervention. However, this bill demonstrates that it was never truly about Covid to begin with.
The question is - why now? UK lockdowns have been marked by myriad protests, from Black Lives Matter last summer to the more recent anti-lockdown demonstrations. But as many women have said on Twitter, Saturday’s vigil was just ‘women and flowers’ - that was all. Though police aggression is abhorrent at any peaceful protest, this vigil was in honour of a woman who has been murdered - and likely by a police officer.
As International Women’s Day (IWD) has only regained mainstream popularity in the last 10-15 years, its roots in socialist protest have been long forgotten. The event first came about as the result of women coming together in public protests, both in Russia and the USA, to form trade unions and campaign for enfranchisement. At the 1910 Copenhagen Conference of the Second International, Clara Zetkin proposed that:
“…..the Socialist women of all countries will hold each year a Women’s Day, whose foremost purpose it must be to aid the attainment of women’s suffrage. This demand must be handled in conjunction with the entire women’s question according to Socialist precepts. The Women's Day must have an international character and is to be prepared carefully.”
The following year, the first IWD was marked by more than one million women and men attending rallies to campaign for women’s rights to work, vote, hold public office, and to end discrimination.
The first IWD was likewise followed by a tragedy, just as this year’s was. Less than a week later, 140 working women lost their lives in the ‘Triangle Fire’ in New York City. This tragedy drew attention to working conditions and labour legislation in the US, and this became the focus of subsequent IWD events.
Perhaps the outrage of the last week will renew IWD as an opportunity for us to campaign against gendered violence, amongst the many, many other areas in which gender equality has still not been achieved. The government’s latest attack on our freedom to protest is not the first, and it will not be the last. If anything, it serves as a reminder of the power that protests can have; if the government thought that protests could not invoke change, they would have no reason to suppress them.
On IWD in 1914, Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested on her way to speak in Trafalgar Square. Again, she was not on her way to incite a riot or to vandalise parliament - just to speak. The government silencing women and minority groups is a tale as old as time, but the brutality that was displayed against those at Sarah Everard’s vigil for paying their respects and expressing their hurt and outrage takes this to new heights. The UN has highlighted violence against women and girls as the ‘shadow pandemic’, with lockdown increasing isolation for women with violent partners, separating victims from their support network and other resources.
In the wake of this week, the message seems to be that women are not safe at home, nor on the streets, nor in the hands of the police.
This new protest bill would mean that we cannot work together to improve this situation, both in lockdown and beyond. At its heart, International Women’s Day is an occasion for protest. It is a day to remind us of how far we have come, and how far we have left to go. It is about the collective liberation of all women, and it is not the time to silence us.