Edinburgh City Council has tried to ban a Reclaim the Night march. It claims that a march promoting safer streets is too dangerous, and must be stopped to keep women safe. This bizarre, outdated and offensive decision comes as the UK Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, announced on Radio 5 that date rape is, in his opinion, not a serious offence.
The notion that victims of sexual assault and abuse are party to blame has always existed. It is shocking that figures like Ken Clarke and public bodies like Edinburgh Council are happy to promote this wrong-headed notion.
The good news is that Reclaim the Night Edinburgh will go ahead to challenge our blame-the-victim culture. It will assemble on the 28th May at 8.30pm for a 9pm start. Bright Green urges everyone in Edinburgh to attend. The march will go ahead despite the efforts of Edinburgh City Council to refuse it permission. It is one of two events that aimed to raise awareness of violence against women which have been refused permission.
Reclaim the Night is part of an international movement to reclaim public spaces for those who find the night a dangerous time to be on the streets. Using collective action to change people’s perceptions about what is safe is an essential part of removing the threat of violence to women.
We must be absolutely clear: if you are the victim of crime that is never your fault. Everyone has the right to be on the streets at any time without the fear or expectation of verbal abuse, assault or other crime. This is a universal truth.
The most frequent victims of crime are those who are marginalised through the power structures of our society. In many cases these victims are seen as partly responsible for the crimes of which they are victims. And that brings us to the second event that Edinburgh Council has banned.
As part of a presentation on health and safety to school students in Toronto, a police constable, Michael Sanguinetti said “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.” A better articulation of blaming the victim is hard to imagine.
“Slutwalk” marches are a global reaction to these comments. The marches aim to reclaim the term “slut” and make it clear that however someone is dressed, it is never right to attack or abuse them. The marches promote the progressive position that blame must never be attributed to the victim. This march was also rejected by the Council. It was rejected because of a major football match being broadcast that evening. Because of the football match the Council refused permission to march, claiming “demonstrators would be subject to negative drunken attention by men on the street.” So Edinburgh Council believe we must be stopped from changing attitudes to women in case men subject them to “negative drunken attention.” It seems that bigots in Edinburgh Council believe it is their role to make decisions that reinforce the long history of blaming the victim.
In Scotland we’ve had some experience of prominent individuals blaming the victims of sex crime. In February the then Conservative Justice spokesperson Bill Aitken was forced to resign as Chair of the Justice Committee.
Following a series of rapes in Glasgow’s city centre, Aitken suggested to a Sunday Herald journalist that “I really think we need to know a bit more about these [rapes]. They are not always as they seem to be, put it that way.” Aitken went on to say “Somebody should be asking [the rape victim] what she was doing in Renfrew Lane. Did she go there with somebody? … Now, Renfrew Lane is known as a place where things happen, put it that way.” When asked what he meant about Renfrew Lane he said “It’s an area where a lot of the hookers [sic] take their clients. Now that may not have happened in this case. But you know … what was happening? There’s always a lot more to these city-centre rapes than meets the eye.”
Aitken was clearly inferring either that the women who had been raped were sex workers and therefore the crime was somehow different to any other sex attack, or that the women who were raped should not have been in the Renfrew Lane area, and it was somehow their fault for endangering themselves. This set of beliefs encourages violence against sex workers and women who happen to be in areas that people like Aitken believe “things happen.”
So the Convener of the Parliament’s Justice Committee and Edinburgh City Council still hold the reprehensible belief that a victim can be held responsible for a crime to which they’ve been subjected. Changing these offensive and outdated beliefs should be a priority for all progressive people. And what better way to do that than by joining the march the Edinburgh Council bigots chose to refuse permission for. The need to change these beliefs has become even clearer as Ken Clarke suggested that there were “serious rapes and other categories of rape.” His suggestion that “date rape” fits into the “other category of rape” reinforces the idea that women are partly to blame for being attacked. It’s an idea that must be crushed.
Come on the Reclaim the Night March on the 28th May to take a stand against blaming the victim. Everyone should be entitled to go out any time they want without fear or expectation of attack. However anyone dresses there must be no assumption that she could be the subject of abuse or assault. We must change the public perception that women, or other marglinalised groups, are to blame for being attacked, a perception so universal that Edinburgh Council feel entitled to use it to refuse the right to march. The Council’s decision makes the case for change even more urgent.