Remember Take Back the Night? That was a BIG thing for decades. It was a women-only protest against male violence against women. We gathered as dusk fell over our cities and towns. As many women as could come–no permit, the cops were never invited (though they always showed up)–we provided our own security–women in vests, or identified with armbands, who made sure we were all together, that the women who were spray painting or stickering were shielded from the surveillance of the state. That the women who removed their shirts had room to move, but be safe within the march, too. We had an “arrest one, arrest all” policy that everyone attending these marches agreed to. We wore jeans and sneakers, dresses and heels, feather boas and long elegant gloves–boots, slippers, rings and bangles, or wallets stuffed into our back pockets.
As we gathered, there was often music, always speakers–women who were activists, anti-violence workers–one or two women gave a speech about the work of the year, the reasons that we gathered like that, every year, third Friday in September, across the nation. We read telegrams, then faxed messages, then e-mails from other women in other cities and towns in Canada–all of us gathering in solidarity as dusk fell. We together lit a way for us to walk together in safety and defiance with each other. All of us were (are) women who had been harassed or attacked on the streets by men, women who adjusted our behaviour in attempts to keep us safe (don’t walk at night, carry your keys in your hand as a weapon, don’t go out alone, don’t do this, don’t do that–you can’t wear that). We were (are) women who had been raped, battered, incested, prostituted, insulted, harassed, put down, held down, excluded, diminished–by men. By patriarchy.
But together, for that one night, everything was possible. We knew we were safe to be together, we protected each other, encouraged each other, healed each other and stoked the fury of our collective rage and faith in each other. Faith in our Liberation Movement.
I tell ya, those marches were so much fun. One year, the year before I got to BC, I think, ’86–when Expo was in full force in Vancouver, the women of Rape Relief built these giant puppets and danced them through the city. The next year, ’87, I was part of the organizing committee for Take Back the Night in Victoria. We didn’t know what the heck we were doing. But we got maybe 20-30 women (and a couple of sensitive guys–we did agree on women only, but these guys didn’t get the memo. whatever, i didn’t notice them till the end of the march) and we walked down the middle of the road (and partly on the sidewalk) for a few blocks–I gave a speech about pornography in front of an “adult” video store, and we yelled at the man who had the fine timing to open the door and scurry away from our taunts as we arrived. We opened the door to the police station and chanted “get your laws off our bodies” at the cops at the top of the stairs. I don’t think they took us seriously. well. Never mind. we were fine. we chanted and sang and danced, the tiny band of us, through the sleepy streets and then we held hands and sang and made our plans to get home safe.
The next year i missed it. I was wrapping up a treeplanting contract in Northern Saskatchewan. Another great story altogether….
I remember those marches–exuberance and rage, joy and light in the darkness, all women together. We always had to ask men to leave. We always had some push back from women who said we were sexist for excluding men–but we also always had men who were willing to do childcare, and provide rides home to women after the march, and back off.
“whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no!”
Take Back the Night was a women only protest against male violence against women. Very clear. We knew that sexual harassment, you know, wolf whistles, invitations to perform fellatio, queries of “how much?” and so on, were along the continuum of men’s everyday violations of our safety, bodily integrity, confidence and abilities. We knew that we needed each other for protection (not our boyfriends or husbands or fathers). We knew that those seemingly innocuous comments about our looks, or our expressions (“Smile, Beautiful!” they would command) were/are not compliments, they are intimidation.
Men rarely attack women they do not know. But when they do, it makes front page news, because all the other ordinary men can point at the monster and say, “see? that’s terrible, I would never do that, you’re much safer with me”, and the patriarchy wins our capitulation again.
so. Take Back the Night was about that. We knew there were always women who could not come out at night because they were held prisoner in their homes by abusive men. And we knew there were women who could not join us because they could not take the risk, however slight, of being arrested. We marched for them, too.
Now, there’s no Take Back the Night. There still are marches held here and there, but they’re not women only, for the most part. They’re not even about male violence against women. They’re about bullying. or violence. in general, as if it’s an air-borne virus that randomly strikes out of the blue. “we must stop violence”– like, um, how do we do that if we don’t NAME who is doing it to whom? you got a vaccine for that?
no. Now we have Slut Walk. this cop in Toronto, he said that women who dressed like sluts were asking to be raped. Or something like that, some offensive, victim-blaming remark like that. which included the word “slut”. So, women in Toronto got all dolled up in their hosiery and push up bras and short tight skirts and went walking together in Toronto. This weekend, they’re gonna do that in Vancouver too.
I won’t be there.
I know, I don’t have to dress in a skirt or anything in order to participate. But the whole thing kinda skeeves me out. It’s not about male violence against women. It’s not about the systems of oppression, rooted in patriarchal power, that keep us from freedom and safety wherever we go. It’s more about individual choice, and capitulating to the impositions of stereotypical gender roles — “This is what a feminist looks like” kind of rhetoric that valorizes a certain kind of beauty that is appealing to men. How the hell did we get here? This whole business of “I choose to wear this clothing, these shoes, I CHOOSE it” stuff. Do ya? really? how is our choice shaped? what are we giving up when we choose one thing over another? what are the costs or benefits to our freedom–our real freedom, i mean, I mean the freedom that comes from acting in solidarity with others–taking responsibility for the well-being of others? When we wear shoes that hinder our ability to walk easily, when we wear tight clothing that shortens our stride, when we wear binding undergarments–I know, I know, “they’re comfortable, I can run in these shoes, I LIKE this stuff”–I know. I’ve heard women say that. But who designed that stuff? And to what purpose? and how can it be liberating to wear constraining clothing? I don’t get it.
and this whole slut walk thing, it’s only about women’s individual choices of what to wear, it seems. Men are not named as the threat to our autonomy. But they are. the man who called those women “sluts”, he was talking about women who had been raped by men. He blamed women for the violence done to them by men. He said, in not so many words, that men are incapable of governing their own behaviour, nor could they be expected to be responsible for the decisions they made when faced with a woman dressed a certain way. He let men off the hook. Enormous insult to men, that comment, as well as to women. but women, in response, have not made the connections between our individual choices and the structures of domination within which those choices have been made. This walk is not about shaking the foundations, or dismantling those structures of domination. This walk is only about the legitimacy of the individual choices made within those structures.
Anyhow. I won’t be going. I think anytime women organize together in our own interests, it has transformative potential. But in this case, I don’t think the potential for transformation will be realized. to quote Gertrude Stein (out of context, to be sure–sorry, Gert), “There’s no there there”, ya know?