The State of Safety
Editor-at-Large Sinead Burke reflects on women's safety
This letter has been a blank page for more time than I would like to admit. I’ve spent what feels like weeks sat in front of my laptop, entranced by Google Doc’s blinking cursor, its rhythm and repetition gently encouraging me to type something. I wanted to write about international women’s day and the women who have moulded and inspired me. But in recent weeks, as the world was enveloped by stories of violence against women, I found myself dissolved of hope and unable to type.
Sarah Everard left a friend’s house in South London at 9 p.m. on the 3rd of March. She was walking home and en route, for fifteen minutes, she called her boyfriend. The call ended at 9:27 p.m. The next day, the police instigated a missing person’s inquiry and through CCTV footage and the cameras embedded in residential doorbells, Sarah’s journey home was sparsely mapped.
Sarah’s body was found almost 53 miles away in a wooded area in Kent on the 10th of March at 4:20 p.m. Living in Ireland, the grief and trauma seemed to carry across the ocean and conversations were weighed with both disbelief and a complete lack of surprise. People gathered in protest and were united in a shared feeling of fear and loss of agency. Police got involved and several women were arrested. The front pages of newspapers were decorated with photographs of women pressured to the ground, handcuffed by those in power. The images were as stark as the reality that led to them.
Since then, I’ve amended the route of my daily walk, choosing busier, more popular paths, acknowledging the CCTV points as I pass, and have been alerting my loved ones as to when I was leaving and when I made it home safely. I sent voice notes to friends, checking that they were okay - physically, emotionally, and mentally.
One friend responded with a voice note that was difficult, but important to listen to. She asked if our grief was so palpable because Sarah, and the women who were arrested, looked like us. She asked, ‘is violence and harm suddenly more noteable or worth discussing because it happened to a kind of person that we might know?’ Her note inspired questions: What about transwomen who experience daily violence and media debate? What about the stories of Black women, many of whom expect to experience violence from the police? What about the research that states that one in two disabled women will be a victim of domestic violence and abuse at least once in their lifetime?
Where is the space for grief and conversation for these women and these bodies?
It was as if her note was a premonition as on March 16th at 5 p.m., a shooter entered Young’s Asian Massage in Atlanta and murdered four people. At 5:47 p.m. police were called to Gold Spa where another three women were found with gunshot wounds. While at the scene of Gold Spa, police received another call to alert them of a third shooting at Aromatherpy Spa, just across the street.
Six of the eight women who were killed were of Asian descent but as of writing this letter, only four of the victims have been named: Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng. The shooter has been charged with multiple counts of murder and aggrivated assualt, but there has been hesitancy to confirm that this attack was racially charged.
In a twelve month period from 2019 to 2020, hate crimes against Asian people increased by 100% in Los Angeles. In Seattle, the Asian community was targeted 21 times in 2019 and 49 times in 2020. This data is stark, but also skewed as these merely reflect the incidences that were reported, recorded and heard. Often we mitigate violence and harm, because we believe that based on the perceptions of others, or the law, it may not be violent or harmful enough.
Over the past year, I’ve enjoyed being at home in my small town and embalmed by my community. It’s been rare to feel observed, to be shouted at and called names by strangers and I haven’t once been picked up, or jumped over. But I know that this won’t last and when the pandemic lifts, I will have to return to a normality that makes me feel unsafe. I want to solve the world and treat society before that happens, but know that this responsibility and obligation isn’t mine alone. Nor can it be.
So, I end this month’s letter with a question: how can we hold space for the collective grief we share, being cognisant of the privileges and oppressions that weigh our experience, to rethread the fabric of the world and make it safer for people to just be themselves?
Editor at large
Sinéad Burke is a teacher, writer and advocate. Sinéad works towards accelerating systemic change within the domains of diversity, education, inclusion, design and disability. She consults within the fashion and design industries to ensure that spaces and products are accessible to all.
Sinéad is a TED speaker, her talk ‘Why Design Should Include Everyone’ has amassed over one million views and resulted in her achieving some ‘firsts’: Sinéad is responsible for the introduction of the term for little person, ‘duine beag’, into the Irish language, she was the first little person to attend the Met Gala, and is the first little person to feature on the cover of Vogue. Sinéad has addressed the Business of Fashion’s VOICES conference and the World Economic Forum too. Sinéad was presented with The Leadership Award at EcoAge’s Green Carpet Fashion Awards by Gucci CEO, Marco Bizzarri and by appointment of President Michael D. Higgins, Sinéad is a member of Ireland’s Council of State.
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