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Feminspire | April 24, 2014

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Reclaim the Night: Taking Blame Away From the Victim

Reclaim the Night: Taking Blame Away From the Victim

Tragedy has been known to bring people together. In Australia, events of severe flooding, devastating bushfires and other natural disasters saw a massive display of support and empathy from the majority of the nation. Recently in the US and Caribbean, Hurricane Sandy hit with devastating repercussions, and my Twitter feed could barely keep up with all of the updates on the progress of the storm. Journalists were standing out in the streets, knee deep in flood waters. Personal stories of distress and tragedy were being documented and communicated to the world before we even knew the extent of what was happening.

Tragedy has been known to bring people together, and often a story of personal distress can spark interest and action in a much wider movement. In late September, a woman named Jill Meagher was allegedly abducted and later found raped and murdered 50 kilometers from her home in Melbourne. Jill had said goodbye to her friends at a nearby bar in the early hours of the morning, and proceeded to begin walking the 450 meters to her home, when she is alleged to have met her attacker. Her initial disappearance sparked a massive search effort and appeal for information, and the discovery of the body and subsequent arrest of a suspect headlined Australian news services for weeks. Following Jill’s death, thousands marched peacefully through the streets of Brunswick to show their support for her family and also to put forth a message of purpose. As one participant wrote, “Jill, I hope you watched today as thousands of people who came out to honor your beautiful life and to ensure your life and death are never forgotten… The nature of your passing is not acceptable, and you have bought a community together to show we will not tolerate it.”

Weeks later, 5,000 people once again took to the streets, this time marching against the victim blaming that some had suggested in the Jill Meagher case, and rallying to “reclaim the night.” Reclaim the Night marches have taken place in Australia since the late 1970s, and the events aim to communicate the strong message that all people, regardless of age, race, sexuality or gender, deserve the right to live happily and safely in their communities, no matter what time of day they choose to walk the streets. The victim blaming in the Jill Meagher case contributed to an entrenched idea in wider society that women are in part responsible in preventing their own sexual assaults, harassment and abuse.

Females are raised differently from men; we’re taught to be more cautious, to be constantly on the look out for dangerous situations, to make sure we do not make ourselves vulnerable. The question is, why? Why should I have to be more careful than my male counterparts? Why should I be constantly living in fear, feeling nervous every time a stranger approaches me at a train station or outside the supermarket?  Why do I feel so much safer travelling somewhere at night with male friends or a group of people than I do by myself? Women’s lives are being dominated a fear of violence as a result of nothing particularly damaging, like wearing a certain item of clothing, stopping to speak to a stranger who needs assistance or being in a particular area at a certain time of day.

The area in which Jill Meagher was attacked is highly populated by university students, with several residential colleges and tertiary institutions nearby.  I am one of those students, and the Jill Meagher case terrified myself and many of my friends, both male and female. It not only terrified people, but it angered them. The idea that we are apparently unable to live safely in our own community is frightening, and the notion that Jill Meagher’s death could have been prevented if she hadn’t walked home alone, that she was somehow to blame, was insultingly ridiculous. We’re always being reminded to travel in groups and avoid particular areas at night. We’re told that it’s our “responsibility.” Does this mean that if anything happens to us, it’s also our responsibility? If we are victimized, is it our fault?

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently called out Opposition Leader Tony Abbott on his comments that reflected sexism and misogyny, and much of Australia’s and the world’s female population stood up in support of her speech. Yet, regardless of the equality being pursued for women in today’s society, we’re still considered unequal when it comes to being victimized.  We still live in a society that projects a vulnerability onto women that men may never have to consider or comprehend. Tragedy has been known to bring people together. Jill Meagher’s death reminds us that any loss of life is a tragedy, but also that she nor any other victim is ever to blame.

Reader submission by Kara Gibbons