Women must be protected.
It's a simple statement that carries the heavyweight of truth. And yet, over the past few days, both women and men have had to be reminded about just how easy it is to forget this truth and even take it for granted.
The tragic death of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executing living in South London, has brought into sharp focus the perpetual dangers that women have to live with for simply existing. It's a weariness that, as a man, I can't fully comprehend. Of course, men aren't exactly immune to threats from the outside world either - men are still more likely to be victims of violence and assault. However, the difference is that sexual assault towards women is more prevalent than it is for men. In 2017, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) estimated that 3.4 million women had been victims of sexual assault throughout their lives. For men, it was 650,000. Worse still, recent figures from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) showed that, between 2019-2020, the number of rape convictions had fallen to a record low. Most disturbing is that 97% of women aged between 16-24. have been sexually assaulted, with 96% not reporting the incident, feeling it would be redundant.
Just by reading those states, as a man, even I get a slight sense of how the shadow of violence and sexual assault looms large over women's lives. If I were a woman, and I knew my claims of rape were likely to lead to nowhere, I too would be very conscious of my surroundings, especially if men are around me on a dimly-lit street. It’s a shame that it’s taken the death of a bright, young woman with a future ahead of her to start having this conversation.
But being someone who questions everything, it’s kind of my raison d'être as a cultural critic; I do find myself asking: would the death of a black woman in Britain have triggered a conversation about violence against women?
Are black women seen as ‘black’ first before anything
In 2017, I read, with deep sadness, about Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman's horrific deaths, 46 and 27 respectively, who had been stabbed to death at a park in Wembley on the former's birthday. This incident took a more sinister turn when it came to light that two officers, whose identity remains undisclosed, had taken inappropriate videos of the deceased women at the crime scene and shared them with some close colleagues.
While there was some furore over the indecency in which Bibaa Henry's and Nicole Smallman’s murder was investigated by the police, a lot of the conversation focused on the fact that both sisters had black heritage and were subjected to humiliation by the police, therefore tying it back to the institutional racism inherent in the Met. But why is no one talking about the fact that an 18-year-old teenage boy has been arrested as the alleged killer? Why did these two black women's deaths not ignite a conversation about male violence but had to instead become a conversation about racist attitudes within the police?
I sometimes get the impression, especially in Britain and western society at large, that when it comes to the violence that women face from men, it is the incidents of these crimes being committed against middle-class white women that really matters. When black women are victims of male aggression, it only ever makes the headlines and gets people all riled up if there is an obvious racial element.
Over in America, the death of Breonna Taylor last year March gained international attention. Breonna was killed by white police officers who fired shots into her apartment when searching for her boyfriend on drug-dealing allegations. But had those police officers been black, then would they have been such anger? I am inclined to say they wouldn't have been because the racial element wouldn't exist. It's almost as if a black woman losing her life only warrants attention and conversation if it is at the hands of a white man.
We must never forget the humanity of black women
According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, from April 2019 to March 2020, 4.6% of black women in the UK reported domestic abuse. This is almost half compared to White British women, where it's 8%. An obvious reason for this wide gap is most likely due to the significantly larger sample size for white British women. Writing anecdotally here, a possible reason there is such a smaller sample size of black women might be down to cultural elements such as black women’s reluctance to speak about domestic abuse compared to their white counterparts.
On the issue of culture, there is a narrative in the western mainstream that black women are strong, tough and fierce at all times. Black women like Beyonce and Serena Williams are viewed as the beacons of black female Herculean strength. But it can all get too much. I have spoken to many black women who have told me that society's expectation for them to be always thick-skinned and fierce robs them of their humanity and even their feminity. Black women can be just as vulnerable as any other race of women.
Overall, the point I am making is that black women must be included in any conversation about male violence and not sidelined in favour of the voices of middle-class white women. A black woman could have been Sarah Everard as well. Violence against black women matters, even if it's not linked to racism. In fact, especially if it’s not linked to racism.
Black women need to be protected. Not because their black. Not because of racism.
But because their women, first and foremost.