Listen to Red on the Stair https://unionjill.bandcamp.com/track/red-on-the-stair
The news of the murder of Sarah Everard has dominated public discussion this week in the UK and reignited the debate about street safety for women, male violence and the need to understand that stranger attacks are rare. Violence against women is much more frequently perpetrated within the home. Women, however, are made to feel afraid of being alone in public space and the social media call for ‘Reclaim the Night’ style protests is an understandable response from women who want society to deal with the violence, rather than shaming women into staying at home or only walking in pairs for safety. These events have unfolded as the anniversary of Kitty Genovese’s murder approaches on 13th March. Kitty Genovese was made famous by her brutal killing at the hands of a male stranger, a short distance from her home in Queens, New York. The subsequent discussion in the media and amongst criminologists and psychologists did not focus, though, on the issue of violence against women. Kitty’s murder gave rise to the naming of the ‘bystander syndrome’, where those who witness something bad happening do not act. They are passive observers.
In the case of Kitty Genovese, 37 people witnessed the crime, but did not call the police or intervene. The internet is replete with the re-telling of this story and perhaps we too contribute to the remembrance of Kitty Genovese as a name given to an ugly syndrome. In our song, Red on the Stair, we narrate the crime, and though it is a dark song, we hope that it brings us back to Kitty the woman, going about her life as we all do, hurrying home from work, maybe looking forward to a relaxing evening. (If only she’d taken a taxi, or walked with a friend). The bystanders are featured in the middle eight of the song (‘lights go on, one by one, faces at the window see me run’) but the sentiment is really about the creepy fear women are obliged to feel when they are in a public space alone, particularly at night (‘I am walking alone, I hear the sound of feet’).
This fear, we contend, is gendered and constructed to limit female mobility. Whilst attacks by strangers are rare, women are conditioned, cajoled, and guilt-tripped into being afraid of lone walking in the street. If we walk alone, we invite danger. Red on the Stair attempts to portray the confusion women feel about their belonging in public space: in the song we warn, yet protest; we mourn, but with a sense of the dramatic macabre; we want agency, but we want to be safe. Red on the Stair gives us the opportunity to raise, once again, some fundamental questions about how we talk about violence against women, how space is gendered and how we construct feminine fear of aloneness.
We both remember the Yorkshire Ripper and the fear generated for women in public places between 1975-1980. Commentary on those events orient us towards the notion that violence is/can be a gendered act. More disturbing though, is the gendered nature of victimhood – we are now familiar with the discourses that attach value to female life according to the age-old sex worker/mother duality. We are also well-versed in the ways in which such violence generates restriction for women, so they are required to stay indoors after nightfall, be accompanied when out, avoid taking up space, and are discouraged from being noticeable. However, the curfew placed on Yorkshire women, as authorities’ misogyny blinded them in their investigation into a serial killer, was insupportable. Some women protested on the streets they had been told were not their territory and the feminist Reclaim the Night movement was born. Perhaps the bystander syndrome points to a deep subconscious unease felt when women act as unfettered agents, when women walk in public space as if they own it: it’s not really a surprise if a lone woman is murdered.
But the suggestion that 37 people witnessed a woman’s murder in the street and did nothing because on some level it is expected that bad things happen to women when they are out of their allocated space – well, that’s just a mad thing to say…