The World

“It Feels Like It’s Just Us”

A woman’s brutal murder has sparked nationwide protests against harassment and sexism. But British women wonder why they’re the only ones fighting.

Protesters hold up cardboard signs that say things like, "Women matter."
People gather in Parliament Square in London on Monday to protest the police response to a Saturday night vigil in tribute to Sarah Everard. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

LONDON—A forgotten slice of feminist history sits by the south side of Clapham Common, an urban park in South London. In 1911, two female surgeons started raising funds to establish a hospital for women and children. It would fulfil the dual goals of training more female medical practitioners while providing health care to female patients in a space created for women by women. The South London Hospital for Women was finally opened five years later, despite facing a predictably disdainful response from the predominantly male clinical sector. It was remarkable for its progressive and thoughtful design, which took into consideration the needs of women of all social classes, and was known fondly to its all-female staff as an “Adamless Eden” until its closure in 1984.

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More than a century later, a stone’s throw away from this “Adamless Eden,” women are protesting for their right to remain free and secure from male violence. This torrent of anger and frustration comes in the wake of the killing of 33-year-old Sarah Everard—a woman who was simply walking home on the evening of March 3 when she disappeared. Everard did everything that women are constantly told to do: She wore brightly colored clothes, called her boyfriend while on her way, and opted to travel along a well-lit route by Clapham Common even though it was longer. But no precautions were enough to protect her from the man who would eventually be arrested just a week later on suspicion of her kidnapping and murder. Public shock and rage over Everard’s murder was compounded by the fact that her alleged killer, 48-year-old Wayne Couzens, was a serving police officer who was kept working for days after a charge of indecent exposure had been placed against him, shortly before Everard disappeared.  

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Everard’s death sparked a social movement, both on social media and offline, that seems unprecedented in its fury. Women of all backgrounds have come together to share their experiences of male harassment and assault, voicing their frustrations at how these are all too often dismissed or trivialized. Along with the anecdotal evidence, the statistics are damning. Findings from a U.N. Women survey of more than 1,000 women published on March 10 showed that 80 percent of all women in the U.K. have encountered sexual harassment in public spaces, with that figure increasing to 97 percent for women aged between 18 and 24. Male violence against women is also pervasive in private and domestic life. Femicide Census, a database that comprehensively details information on femicide cases, reported that a woman in the U.K. was murdered by a man every three days at an unabating rate from 2009 to 2018.

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In London last weekend, hundreds of people attended a vigil for Everard that ended in a police crackdown widely criticized as disproportionately violent. The following day, a thousand-strong crowd marched into Parliament Square in dissent of the brutalities the night before. In a rapid, confusing sequence of events since, a campaign to make misogyny a hate crime went into full swing at the same time that a new bill was passed in Parliament to curtail public protests; meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has vowed to increase funding for “better lighting and CCTV … to provide further reassurance for women and girls.” None of these measures has come across as compelling or helpful. Through it all, one question remains on the minds of many: Why is it primarily women who have been actively engaging with questions around their safety, while men have remained curiously silent?

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“It feels like it’s just us … talking about a problem that we shouldn’t have to fix. When I look online, the only people discussing women’s safety are other women,” said a woman at the vigil for Everard at Clapham Common on Saturday, an event that noticeably consisted of mostly female attendees. She and her friend both declined to be named, stating their apprehension at being arrested. “And now we’re being told not to go out at night,” added her friend. “It makes me angry, because we’re being penalized for something and told we should live in fear when it’s not a female problem. It feels like mansplaining … like men think we’re not clever enough to understand something that they’re doing to us.”

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Initially, the vigil was organized by Reclaim These Streets, a grassroots collective advocating community ownership of public spaces. It was intended to pay tribute to Everard while protesting police instructions for women not to go out after 9 p.m. The Metropolitan Police (known informally as “the Met” to most Londoners) reacted by banning the event, citing COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. They also threatened fines of up to 10,000 pounds (around $14,000) for every organizer involved. Despite attempts to discuss a COVID-secure arrangement with the police, Reclaim These Streets was forced to call off the vigil, explaining that they could not risk the hefty fines. In a statement published on Twitter calling upon supporters to donate to various women’s causes instead, the collective noted: “We do not want to see hundreds of thousands of pounds contributed to a system that consistently fails to keep women safe—either in public spaces or in the privacy of their homes.” Sisters Uncut, a separate feminist group, later announced that it would carry on with the event.

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On the fringes of the vigil at a central bandstand in Clapham Common, as women bearing flowers and candles chanted “the police are trying to silence us, the police are trying to repress us,” a few men stood watching. Two of them were housemates Jay Aranze, 31, and Fenan, 32, who wanted to be identified only by his first name. “I don’t think that the pandemic is a good enough reason to stop this from going ahead. … This affects every woman and is way bigger than COVID,” said Fenan. He had decided to show his solidarity because he was reminded of how comforting it was, as a Black man, to see scores of white people at a Black Lives Matter protest in London last year. “It made me realize that it’s important for us to show support when we see a fucked-up situation.”

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Both men were quick to condemn the #NotAllMen hashtag, which began trending on social media almost immediately after Everard’s murder. “It really comes down to a lack of understanding of women’s experiences,” Aranze said. “I think for men, many don’t get that even if they’re not doing anything wrong, they don’t call out their friends when they say something sexist. They don’t say, ‘Hey, that’s not cool.’ We need to start seeing some action … in men’s behavior.” Fenan concurred: “The people who say ‘not all men’ are the same sort of people who say ‘all lives matter.’ ” Not long later, at around 7:30 p.m., the police stormed the bandstand, tackling some of the women to the ground. When images emerged in the press of male police officers becoming violent at an event set off by a woman killed by a policeman, the irony was not lost. Cressida Dick, the commissioner of the Met police, has rejected repeated calls for her resignation.

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The #NotAllMen brigade has become emblematic of the defensiveness when men are being finally held accountable for a wider culture of misogyny. Use of the hashtag is typically accompanied by accusations that men are “being demonized,” or wrests the conversation away from women by claiming that men, too, can be victims of violence. But it’s vital to note that #NotAllMen doesn’t just consist of men. A series of tweets by TV presenter Davina McCall claiming that “female abduction / murder is extremely rare” and that “calling all men out as dangerous is bad for our sons, brothers, partners” was met with swift backlash.

“No one is saying that men don’t experience violence against them, and that violence is committed by other men,” says Mary Morgan, an expert in body politics and an adviser to the Reclaim These Streets movement. “But it’s an issue when people only bring up violence against men in relation to violence against women. It’s an effort to silence and belittle women … downplaying the realities of disproportionate violence that women face on a day-to-day basis. Women are expected to shoulder the responsibility for preventing violence, and then the blame when violence is done to them. Then we’re gaslit for speaking up about that violence. It’s appalling that anyone would be offended by this movement. We’re not asking a lot—we’re just asking to not be assaulted or murdered.”

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Perhaps more troubling than those hopping on the #NotAllMen bandwagon is the failure of men to organize collective action in response to violence against women. A quick Google search reveals a multitude of female-led charities active in the U.K. that aim to end misogynistic abuse: These include Refuge, Women’s Aid, and End Violence Against Women. Aside from two male-led community-based initiatives, White Ribbon and Beyond Equality, there is little prominent, sustained, or consistent effort at working with boys and men to tackle gender norms and inequality.

One exception is David Challen, an activist against domestic abuse, who successfully campaigned in 2019 to exonerate his mother from a murder conviction after she killed her husband after suffering a lifetime of coercive control and violence. He believes that the lack of male voices and action has to be urgently addressed. “Men aren’t really contributing to or progressing this conversation. The intricacies of issues that women face, whether it’s domestic abuse or rape … it’s women who are working hard to solve them. Where are the men? I’m ashamed.”

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Challen has also observed that women who dare to speak out about male violence have received far more reprisals than he has. “I’m still surprised to this day that I don’t get attacked more by men. There are a few occasional comments about men being victims of violence, some men try to emasculate you and call you a snowflake, but the response is usually positive. It’s really indicative that when women talk about their issues, men are keen to jump on them.” While he believes that the #NotAllMen are a noisy minority, he stresses that there needs to be a concerted attempt at engaging with men on male violence. At the root of this male inertia, he says, is a fear of “handing masculinity over.” He also thinks the trepidation of “getting it wrong” holds men back. “When you do speak out,” he explains, “there’s a lot of pressure to get your words right. You don’t want to take over the conversation from women.”

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While calls on the British government to do more to challenge violence against women have intensified, advocates know that there are no fast solutions to the malaise of sexism. “There isn’t going to be one policy that can fix things. Rooting misogyny out from our culture is going to take a range of interventions and quite a bit of time,” says Luisa Porritt, a politician from the Liberal Democrat Party who is a candidate for mayor of London. “What I’ve been really dismayed by is the policies and responses coming out from the government. Yesterday, Boris Johnson’s response to what’s happened in recent days was ‘let’s have more plainclothes police officers to watch over women.’ How is that going to make us feel more safe? Beyond women, it also speaks to … the creeping encroachment of the state in cracking down on our civil liberties.” On a personal level, she feels that “the men who have been taking the time to engage with me over the last two weeks … are not the men we need to win over.”

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Porritt says that there is a whole host of things that must be done as a nation to address violence against women. “I think we like to think that we’re more progressive than some other countries, and so we set a really low bar for ourselves in terms of where we need to go.” She mentions that the U.K. has yet to ratify the Istanbul Convention, a global agreement to prevent and combat violence against women and girls. On a national level, she also emphasizes that drastic cuts to women’s refuges and services over the past decade severely undercut the government’s recent rhetoric on protecting the rights of women. Even more grim are figures on the number of reported rapes making it to trial. Just over 3 percent of 58,856 rapes recorded by police forces in the twelve months before March 2020 were actually prosecuted.

Yet amid the furor, a ray of optimism presents itself that things can take a turn for the better. Challen says, “I think there are men who are mentally engaged with the issue of violence against women, but from now, hopefully, more will be willing to listen. It’s not about reading a few stories online about women [being attacked or harassed], it’s about connecting to one another and educating ourselves. There were men outside the courtroom supporting my mother’s appeal, and it made me see that men can be part of that change too. And for that to happen would be really amazing.”

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