Laila Shah writes about violence against women, and the police’s role in perpetuating it. Content warning: Sexual violence
Nothing I am about to say should be ground-breaking. The plight of women’s safety in the face of male violence is a concern that has been discussed time and time again in an almost cyclical manner… a spike in outcry followed by no change – apart from in the number. The number of dead women behind closed doors or down in camouflaged ditches.
This time it was following the tragic deaths of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, but it could have easily been Geetika Goyal, Stacey Knell, Wenjing Xu, or any more of the hundreds of femicide victims killed by men in the last few years. And if you’re a woman reading this I know you know it could have also been you. I mean this in the least sensationalist way possible. Because it’s true.
In the UK one woman is killed on average every three days. As winter rolls in and the days get shorter I make more of an effort to remember to bring my baton and personal attack alarm out with me in order to maximise my safety. I’m reminded of my own experiences of having to pretend to know a group of strangers to evade a man that I believed was following me home from work. And it makes me angry. Because I shouldn’t have to take these measures. I shouldn’t have to remind my friends to let me know when they get home and then check my phone for the next half an hour until I see that ‘all good! x’ text. I shouldn’t have to cover my drink in the club or stress about the chance of having a needle injected into my body.
Although Sarah and Sabina died at the hands of strangers, this culture of male violence extends far deeper than poorly lit streets. Harassment and violence happens everywhere; in public, work, home, online, and even on campus. Even the institution whose literal job is to serve and protect has, since its inception, been riddled with fatal misogynistic attitudes. The police force has, at best, been consistently subpar in tackling gender-based crime and, at worst, been the enabler and perpetrator of violence against women.
Since 2009 at least 15 serving or former police officers have been responsible for a woman’s murder – including Wayne Couzens, Sarah’s killer. I’m sure you felt as sick as I did after finding out how he carried out a false arrest in order to kidnap, rape and murder her. This perverted abuse of power is placed in the context of deeply rooted misogyny, where an officer can be jokingly nicknamed ‘The Rapist’, where misogyny is ruled out of being a hate crime by the Prime Minister, and where women are consistently let down by improper investigations and a failure of the wider legal system. Forty percent of police forces in England and Wales don’t have specialist rape units… many being dissolved due to the funding cuts of Tory austerity. This is abysmal, considering the estimation that around half a million women in the UK are victims of sexual assault or rape every single year.
On top of this, even women who work within the police’s walls express fears surrounding reporting sexist behaviour, due to the vilification that comes with whistleblowing. It’s clear that on every front the police force is consistently failing women. The police are meant to be based on Peelian principles that uphold the idea of ‘policing by consent’ and a police force that is trusted by and serves the community, not the state/status quo. How can that even be conceivable when women’s trust in the police has been eroded to the point where even the Met Police has suggested resisting arrest?
These issues associated with the glaring institutional misogyny of the police go hand in hand with the institutional racism of the police too. This is an intersectional problem. One aspect that highlights this is what has been termed the ‘missing white woman syndrome’, referring to the disproportionate attention placed on missing young, white and often middle-class women by the media and the police.
For example, two Black sisters who went missing last year, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, were consistently failed by the Met, leading to their friends having to organise their own search party in order to find their bodies. This misogynoir is again reflected in the way the police deals with domestic violence. Evie Muir, a domestic abuse specialist, calls it the ‘ideal victim’ narrative, arguing when victims of abuse don’t fit the police’s preconceived image of a victim i.e. a ‘white, cisgender, heterosexual woman who may be covered in bruises, or be cowering under a fist’, reports are consistently not taken seriously.
This prejudiced police force did not just manifest itself, however. The misogyny and racism of the police are a reflection of the misogyny and racism that is embedded in all aspects of society.
Therefore, the solution is not more officers on the street and plain clothes officers in clubs but a deep and profound altering of the misogynistic cultural hegemony that still dominates our society and the police force. That is going to be hard. The conversation has certainly positively shifted away from victim blaming and focusing on toxic neoliberal notions of what women can individually do to protect themselves. But it must go further. On top of this cultural shift, there needs to be structural reforms in policing, such as moving funding away from the police and towards social services specialised to deal with issues such as domestic violence and rape. Enough women have suffered at the hands of gendered violence. The cycle must stop.
Artwork by Millie Elson.