In the wake of the murder of Sabina Nessa, a 28-year-old Muslim woman who was attacked and murdered on the evening of September 17 while walking in a London park, a worldwide conversation over women’s safety has been reignited. Women have been calling for action and clamouring for a world where women can walk home safely without fear of misogynist violence. Sabina Nessa was in a public place; not a secluded one. She was surrounded by people and it wasn’t late at night when this happened. But somehow, we still get told that the burden of our safety rests on how we conduct ourselves. The message that women should follow certain “rules” to avoid being attacked or killed is still being circulated.
In the Muslim world, women are given more guidelines to stay safe. We are told to stay in our homes, to have a Mahram by our sides at all times and to always wear hijabs. This ignores the fact that even in our homes, we often do not feel safe. Not even the men with whom we share the same faith have succeeded in ensuring that men do not harm women. How many times have men being told that they should have protected themselves better against any form of violence? How often have we heard that a man whose home was invaded needed to have protected his home better? The answer is most certainly never.
The burden placed on us isn’t just heavy, unfair and sexist, it has also proved to fail at protecting us from violence. We have explained why “Why were you out so late?” and “what were you wearing?” are problematic responses to cases of violence. It communicates that women should be held responsible for their own safety and blamed when things go wrong. Have we ever considered that even well-intentioned instructions to “be careful” and “take precautions” can be energy-sapping and exhausting? “Watching our backs” can be frightening, as it further communicates to us that the world will never be safe for women.
It also ignores the fact that most of the things we are advised to do are already being done by a majority of women around the world. In public spaces and sprawling cities, women already adopt daily behaviours to help them stay safe. These behaviours range from checking our mirrors frequently while driving, noting characteristics and license plate numbers of cars trailing close behind, wearing hoodies while driving late at night to appear male to other drivers and buying pepper sprays for our purses, cars and houses to never leaving a drink unattended at a party, crossing the street when we notice a man walking behind us and walking past our destinations, particularly our homes if we notice that someone has been following us. The list of things we already do to keep ourselves safe is endless.
It is why the current victim-blaming approach is not only counterproductive but callous at best. Yet, in the wake of any report of violence done to women, comments such as ‘She asked for it’, ‘She was flirting’, ‘She was wearing a revealing dress’, ‘She was too confident’, ‘She walked home alone’, ‘She stayed in that relationship’, ‘She was naïve’, ‘She didn’t report soon enough’, ‘She didn’t fight back’, ‘She lied about it’, ‘She should have known’, ‘She should have seen it coming’, ‘She should have protected herself’, amongst others still get thrown around in a world where victim-blaming of women is prevalent and normalised.
The case of Sabina Nessa is still fresh. How many women need to die before the required action is taken? Rather than advise women on ways to keep themselves safe from violence, it’s time to address the elephant in the room. Men who are the source of women’s nightmares should be held accountable. Misogyny needs to become a hate crime. Harassment and violence against women need to become criminal offences. Boys need to be educated from a young age to treat women and girls as equal humans deserving of love and respect. If there’s a need to impose gendered curfews to make the men stay at home at a particular time, then so be it. Women already have enough burdens thrust upon them to last a lifetime. Being born female is not a crime we should be willing to pay with our lives. We need to reclaim our streets and our communities. And it’s time we start holding those in charge of our securities accountable for failing to protect us.
Aqilah-Layla Bashir is a skincare entrepreneur and social justice activist.