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28th November 2023

How do we make Reclaim the Night more than just a “white women’s march”? In conversation with the Feminist Collective

The Feminist Collective discuss the effectiveness of Reclaim the Night campaign, and the changes they hope to see to make it more inclusive and intersectional
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How do we make Reclaim the Night more than just a “white women’s march”? In conversation with the Feminist Collective
Credit: Shikhar Talwar @ Mancunion

Content warning: discussion of gender-based violence, sexual assault and issues affecting marginalised genders.

With Reclaim the Night on the horizon, The Mancunion sat down with three members of the Feminist Collective’s committee – Rose, the committee’s Co-Chair (she/her), Loz, Deputy Chair (they/he) and El, the Collective’s Social Secretary (she/her) – to discuss the Collective’s thoughts, reflections, and aspirations for this year’s Reclaim campaign.

Reclaim the Night originated in Leeds in 1977, in response to the sexist statements and attitudes evident in the police’s criminal investigation into Peter Sutcliffe, referred to as the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ in the media. One of the campaign’s aims is to reclaim women and marginalised genders’ right to access public spaces safely and freely. The Collective define Reclaim as a “powerful” campaign which raises “awareness for sexual harassment and gender-based violence” – an issue which often goes “unrecognised.”

Reclaim’s city-wide approach

The marches take place nationwide, and continue to inspire as much passion now as they did in the 1980s. Manchester’s march this year will take on a new dimension. Previously, Manchester’s Reclaim events centred around a march beginning in the University’s student-dominated Fallowfield campus and ending at the University’s Students’ Union. This year, the march will be an amalgamation of all of Manchester’s universities. It will begin at the Students’ Union and weave its way into city centre, culminating in speeches and demonstrations at the Great Northern in Deansgate.

The Collective hopes that this decision will shift the focus from the sexual harassment and gender-based violence which students at university can experience, to how these issues can affect anyone, anywhere. Reclaim will take on a new city-wide significance, rather than it being, arguably, confined to university spaces as a ‘university-issue.’ Loz judges the benefit of this to be that, instead of the march being “a feminist space” which is “occupied by people who are […] already engaged”, this year “we have a better chance of […] spreading that message further and starting those conversations” with new people.

Amongst the banners, megaphones, and throngs of people, the Collective believe there is a genuine sense that the people participating are reclaiming the streets. While it is disappointing that the point that “all people should feel safe on the streets of Manchester” still needs to be laboured, it proves the essentiality of the issues Reclaim engages with. Rose sees this as an important distinction to make. By emphasising the breadth of the issue, the campaign no longer makes itself susceptible to “pigeon-holing” as a “women’s issue” but turns “the focus on gender-based violence as a whole.”

Marginalised genders

However, it was only as late as 2020 – 43 years after Reclaim started – that the Students’ Union’s language surrounding Reclaim started to shift to include not just “violence against women” but against “marginalised genders” too. Even then, the 2020 official video doesn’t overtly use this language; it promotes Reclaim as engaging in issues such as “gender equality, the breakdown of gendered discrimination, and the right to feel safe.” So, does Reclaim’s belated inclusivity and recognition make it less effective?

The Collective’s committee share an awkward silence, until Loz shares their own experience. He says that as a trans person, they’ve “chosen to interpret Reclaim in a way that is powerful for me. But it’s about making sure that it feels powerful and effective for everyone.” The campaign’s move to include “marginalised genders” in who its issues affect is a crucial one, as Loz feels that it previously “disenfranchise[d] so many people” from the march, the aims of Reclaim, or the services Reclaim spotlights.

Intersectionality

The Collective’s emphasis on intersectionality runs throughout the interview. The committee agree that marches in previous years have felt “quite white, and quite cis-gendered”. They attribute this not only to the history of the march – it coincided with second-wave feminism – which “you know, is very white and middle-class and all that.” It’s clear that they feel like more work needs to be put into Reclaim becoming an “intersectional march rather than just a white woman’s march.”

Loz acknowledges that the lack of intersectionality is “to do somewhat with the makeup of the Uni.” But, given the new route changes, they hope that by “being more expansive across Unis and citywide” there will be “a change in demographic.”

The Collective believes Reclaim’s reach should be more diverse and inclusive, as the campaign will begin to include people across Manchester. El, in particular, is hoping that the organiser’s changes will spark “a conversation between people who may not have had that conversation before.”

Reaching the right demographics

The Collective promotes awareness and discussion of the challenges faced by marginalised people. This year, they’ve held weekly conversations on a broad range of topics, such as how the working-class fit into feminist and academic spaces, to the erasure of black women in activism. Of course Reclaim is high up on their agenda. But is it right that Reclaim is left in the hands of societies like the Collective? Especially when their members more than likely already know about Reclaim, and are already passionate about issues affecting women and marginalised genders?

Intersectionality is crucial to the Collective’s approach and vision. The Collective suggest that it’s the University who needs to take this on board, and conduct an interdisciplinary approach to Reclaim. They further suggest that by collaborating with different groups and societies – especially those who may not have heard about it, or who wouldn’t believe it to be ‘their issue’ – Reclaim could have a further outreach.

They indicate this could involve striking a balance between a bottom-up (students, societies, and groups) and top-down (Reclaim’s organisers) then Reclaim has the potential to do more than just “get a lot of people involved”; it would further its outreach and impact. As Rose summarises, we “need everyone to be involved because the cause affects everybody.”

Reclaim and the University

The opinion that Reclaim is a powerful night for all involved is unanimous. But, issues have been raised concerning the fact that it is an annual event which takes place on just one night for only a couple of hours. Some students may even call this performative. While previous years have seen cancellations of events promoting Reclaim, like the 2022 club night, the SU Exec Officers have made sure to put on a variety of events this year; ranging from a Creative Showcase Fundraiser, banner making, and ‘RECLAIMing history’ talk which the Collective is co-hosting.

Although the Collective recognise “a lot of flaws that may surround it”, they believe that a way to make Reclaim more effective is to “work on sustaining that messaging of the march throughout the year.” There are some things which only need a limited advertising timeframe – don’t promote Christmas in July! – but the issues with which Reclaim engages don’t have a timeframe. They, sadly, happen all year long. This should be considered by the University, which could continuously promote Reclaim on its campuses; provide support on the issues Reclaim tackles; hold student focus groups; increase its communications on topics such as coercion and consent. We agreed that weaving the important messaging of Reclaim into the student populations’ lives all-year round would benefit everyone and champion the cause.

Reclaim’s future

While Reclaim is already a compelling campaign, there is space for it to grow. Problems can be fixed, and new approaches can be taken. Rose hopes that “it becomes a more inclusive space,” which would happen if the University collaborated with students and societies to broaden its outreach. Similarly, Loz feels that “whether it’s in the speakers or in the makeup of the march”, they want people of all identities to feel reflected and recognised in the campaign.

However, some of the issues the march addresses – coercion, sexual harassment, gender-based violence – can feel lost in the march itself. These issues are more deep-rooted, and require more work than can be achieved by simply holding a banner and chanting down Oxford Road. It is Reclaim’s solution to these issues which need to be reevaluated.

The Collective agree that one way this could be done is by “better advertisement on the support that’s available at the Uni”, as they feel that not enough people know what is available. Loz also highlights the first-year module on consent and coercion, which isn’t reinforced in later years.

The Mancunion found that this module is no longer even mandatory, which then frames their comment “there’s no point preaching to the choir” in a different light; especially as this module was “completed by less than a quarter of students in SALC.” Setting Reclaim’s theme as ‘Convince Me Not’ isn’t enough; the University needs to provide and promote education on consent and coercion throughout their students’ time at University.

It is only through active dialogue and outreach that we can expect a solution to these issues. El summarises this point and our conversation passionately, stating that if the University “spoke to societies […] talked to the students, talked to the people who are at University” then real change to combat sexual harassment and gender-based violence can take place.

As the Collective have made clear, the ‘claiming’ part sits on the University’s engagement with intersectionality. Only then can the Night by reclaimed for everyone.

 

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can find online support here: Home – Trafford Rape Crisis, Rape Crisis England & Wales, Home – Safeline – Believe in you – Surviving sexual abuse & rape

Support at the University is available at Report and Support, by speaking to an advisor, and the Counselling Service.  There is a full list available under the ‘support section‘ of the Reclaim webpage.

The Feminist Collective meet every Tuesday at 7.15-9.15pm in The Hive, and post their society’s updates and plans on their Instagram, @uomfeministcollective.

Alexandra Baynes

Alexandra Baynes

Head Editor of Opinion Section. Radio Host on Fuse FM. Twitter: @lexiebayness

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