Reclaiming the night

Last night I joined hundreds of others marching up Sydney Road in Brunswick for Reclaim the Night 2014.

Reclaim the Night is a movement that calls for an end to violence against women, in all its forms.

As I set off to join the crowds at Brunswick Town Hall, I did wonder if I had the right to be there. I’m lucky, I thought. I’ve not had to deal with much in the way of harassment. I don’t know many people that have. I live in an inner north, middle class bubble where everyone votes left, supports asylum seekers and treats each other with respect. Don’t I? A woman at Reclaim the Night actually thanked my husband for turning up (he was one of many men there). The Silver Fox just shrugged his shoulders. Of course he was going to be there. It was the right thing to do.

Sure, when I was at college, there was the student party when, a little worse for wear, I just managed to push a man away as he kissed me, despite my obvious preference – at that precise moment – for going to sleep or throwing up, whichever happened first.

Then there was the time my friend and I were walking home in Perth one evening and a man shouted “Sluts!” at us as he drove past.

And in Melbourne too – Brunswick, in fact – there was the time I was waiting for the Silver Fox to pick me up, after I’d been out with girlfriends, and two men drove past yelling a graphic description of what they would like to do to me out of the window. (Can you imagine how they even planned that little excursion? ‘Hey bro, d’you wanna go out for a beer?’ ‘Nah, mate – let’s just drive round and shout rude stuff at some chicks instead.’)

But I do feel lucky.

I’ve never stayed with a controlling, abusive boyfriend because he convinced me his behaviour was all my fault, like one woman I know.

I’ve never been in the situation of the transgender teacher that my news editor wanted me to write about as if it were a great scandal, rather than a private matter for the woman involved.

And I’ve never told a pal, after going home with a man I met on a night out, that “it wasn’t rape, but…”

And that’s all just within my immediate circle.

Outside of that, the stories are endless, from the “she asked for it” line still so often trotted out about rape victims, to the Courier Mail’s shameful coverage of the murder of Mayang Prasetyo last week, which quite rightly has been slammed by other media. The Everyday Sexism Project website makes for depressing reading.

Something has gone horribly wrong in our society. How did we get to the stage where it is so normal, so acceptable, to disrespect those we share the earth with in such a horrific way? I wasn’t brought up that way, and I would wager that the men driving round Brunswick shouting abuse at middle-aged women waiting on their husbands weren’t either.

I don’t have the answer, but I do know that awareness is the first step in making a change. We all have a responsibility to watch our own behaviour and language, and ask if what we do is in any way contributing to this culture of hate. We all have a responsibility to call out bad behaviour when we see it. And we all have a responsibility to support those affected who, for whatever reason, do not have or cannot find a voice.

That’s why Reclaim the Night matters, and why I was proud to be part of it.

The Scottish Referendum: a view from an ex-pat

Saltire and union flagI’ve only just become Australian, but in a few days, my ‘other’ nationality will be put to the test when Scotland votes on whether or not to leave the United Kingdom. The idea of Scottish independence has been lurking in the background of Scottish politics for many years, but this is the closest it has ever come to reality.

As a non-resident of Scotland I don’t have a vote, but my accent is enough to prompt discussions about the referendum with almost everyone I meet. Among my friends – Scottish, English and Australian – there are representatives of both sides of the debate. My Facebook feed is filled with photographs of YES posters in suburban windows, balanced by opinions on why Scotland can never be like Norway (and if it was, why Scots would hate having to pay a fortune for beer). It’s clear that while some are making their choice based on the facts as they see them (this is a political campaign, after all, so there has been misinformation and spin on both sides), others are following their hearts.

To vote yes or no to breaking up a union of nations is a huge decision and one that most people outside Scotland, who haven’t been exposed to the growing interest in Scottish nationalism, cannot fathom ever having to make. For Scots, however, the referendum was inevitable and in my view, it represents the greatest opportunity the country has ever had. The fact is that if the Scottish people were truly happy with the status quo, no referendum would have been called. This is a chance to start afresh, to do it our way.

Since the Thatcher years, which saw Scotland’s industries decimated and a series of hugely unpopular policies introduced, the views of the Scottish electorate have diverged sharply from those of their neighbours south of the border. It is easier to spot the Loch Ness Monster than a Scottish Tory. They are so uncommon that when the rare occasions that I meet one, I still find myself doing a double take. In the general election of 1997, not a single Scottish seat was won by the Conservatives. In each of the three elections since then, the Tories have only managed to take one seat. The Conservative share of the vote in the Scottish Parliament – elected by proportional representation – has been dropping steadily for the last few years, and the party currently holds only 15 of 129 seats.

As a result the policies of the Scottish National Party-led Scottish Parliament and its counterpart at Westminster are also wildly different. The powers given to the Scottish Parliament on its formation in 1999 have given the Scots an opportunity to show how they would like things to be, albeit in a limited way. The strong support for the SNP (even prior to the referendum being called) suggests that Scots’ priorities are very different to those of their southern neighbours. University tuition for Scottish students is free; students south of the border pay thousands of pounds for a degree. In Scotland, there is a commitment to free universal healthcare including free prescriptions; in England the National Health Service is being systematically dismantled and a packet of pills will cost you eight pounds. Westminster is happy to have nuclear submarines stationed on the Clyde; the SNP have pledged to remove them. To paraphrase one of the many memes circulating online this week, the yes camp might not be sure of what it’s running towards, but it knows exactly what it’s running away from.

This increasing disparity, combined with a strong sense of patriotism, has undoubtedly added momentum to the yes campaign. There are still many questions about what independence would mean that have not been – and perhaps cannot be – fully answered, but there is undoubtedly a growing sense that Scotland is different, and needs more control over its own destiny. Few in the no camp would be likely to refuse the carrot of additional powers now being dangled by Westminster in the form of ‘devo max’, should independence not be achieved.

And whatever happens, this referendum can only be good for politics. Scotland, a nation which could have been excused for becoming apathetic, having repeatedly voted for one government but received another, thanks to the way British elections are run, has had its interest in politics reignited. Ninety-seven per cent of the adult population have registered to vote in the referendum, some 300,000 more than were registered for the last Westminster election, and turnout is expected to be extremely high. Among the 97 per cent are many 16 and 17-year-olds, given the opportunity to have their say for the first time. The lowering of the voting age was a smart move: it will create a generation of more politically engaged young people, who appreciate the importance of participation in political decisions.

Will Scotland be independent come Friday? Probably not. According to the latest polls, every one of the ‘don’t knows’ need to be converted to yes for that to happen. The natural tendency for many Scots to doubt their own ability may also come into play at the last minute, with some yes voters switching to what they consider the ‘safer’ no. I may not need to replace my UK passport with a Scottish one this year, but a few years from now…who knows. The genie is out of the bottle. It would take a monumental rethink on how the union is governed to lure it back in.