Big Reclaim the Night march in Melbourne

Direct Action — October 23, 2012

By Jessica Lenehan and Jasmine Curcio — Between 6000 and 7000 people, an unprecedented number for Melbourne, took to the streets on October 20 for Reclaim the Night 2012. Since its inception, Reclaim the Night has been a staple of feminist activism. Marches are held annually in cities all around the world seeking to reclaim public space for women and calling for an end to violence against women both on the streets and in the home.

More than one third of Australian women experience violence at the hands of a partner. According to the Centre Against Sexual Assault, violence against women severely impairs the capacity of many women to take part in society. The fear of sexual violence, from verbal street harassment (which women are told to consider a compliment) through to the extremes of rape and murder, is a key factor in terrorising women from playing a greater role. Thus the dual purpose of Reclaim the Night is to empower women into collectively reclaiming the streets, and drawing attention to the sexual double standards and victim blaming that exist in Australia.

Reclaim the Night marches have a radical history, beginning with a march through San Francisco’s red light district in 1973, and followed by marches of women in Philadelphia in 1975 and Brussels in 1976. They were an important part of the second wave of feminist struggle for women’s liberation and were tied in with the parallel struggles of the US civil rights movement and the labour movement.

The Sydney Road march in Melbourne on October 20 occurred in the aftermath of the rape and murder of Jill Meagher, a 29-year-old ABC radio staff member, who was abducted from Melbourne in September, sparking unprecedented community concern and inspiring a 30,000-strong peace march.

While Jill Meagher’s disappearance, rape and murder were front-page news, many victims go unnoticed by the media and are often blamed for supposedly having brought the attack upon themselves.

The Australian media have long played a leading role in normalising and reproducing sexism. The response of the media to Jill Meagher’s disappearance took the standard conservative forms of questioning her behaviour on the night and using the case to advocate strengthening the police presence on the streets. Both federal opposition leader Tony Abbott and Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle called for more CCTV cameras and a stronger police presence in the area.

This “solution” amounts to an erosion of civil liberties. CCTV cameras will only allow monitoring of sexist behaviour after the fact and are likely simply to move violent crimes into neighbouring side streets. We need to change and confront the sexist culture of our society, which creates the violence in the first place.

The Reclaim the Night Sydney Road collective, which organised the October 20 rally and march refused to engage with any policies that would give further powers to police. Instead, the march called for an end to violence against women, support for survivors, an end to victim blaming and adequate funding for crisis services. These messages fit the inherently radical nature of Reclaim the Night in that it is a direct community response to a structural problem.

The speakers on the night reinforced this message. Margarita Windisch from the Centre Against Sexual Assault spoke on the need for community education. Journalist Clementine Ford spoke out against victim blaming, and Durkhanai Ayubi argued the necessity of breaking down the social stigma that exists for those who experience sexual assault. These sentiments resonated throughout the crowd, many of whom were carrying placards with wording such as “I’m here to end sexism, not campaign for CCTV to film it” and “A woman’s place is everywhere”.

Direct Action — October 23, 2012