Take Back The Night in Belgium past and present
Women unite, violence to women, violence by men… we can’t talk about it anymore, we’re not allowed to speak the words. At least not in some of the anti-capitalist and queer activist communities in Gent (Belgium), so it seems. What has happened ? Who’s making up these new rules ? And why is our feminist activism censored and silenced ?
Toen er ‘women unite’ werd geroepen, krimpte mijn maag samen [When ‘women unite’ was shouted, my stomach turned] Comment on website of De Wereld Morgen : http://www.dewereldmorgen.be/foto/2010/11/26/genders-unite-hexennacht-2010-gent
Taking back the streets since 1976
First a few words on the herstory of Take Back The Night, also known as Reclaim The Streets or Reclaim The Night, or Heksennacht as it’s called in Flanders and the Netherlands. There have been Take Back The Nights – marches and actions against violence to women – in Belgium and worldwide since the mid-1970s. Often they are organised on the International Day Against Violence to Women on November 25th . In 1976 the International Tribunal On Crimes Against Women took place in Brussels, to show that women are oppressed everywhere. In personal testimonies women from various countries shared the experiences of violence and exploitation they had suffered. Afterwards a march of women holding candles to protest against the ways violence affects women took the streets of Brussels, the first Take Back The Night ever !
In the Netherlands Heksennacht has been organised since 1978. Heksennacht literally means Witch Night and the women in the action dressed as witches, reclaiming an image once used to insult women. They sympathised with and identified as witches, pointing to the similarity between the burning or drowning of witches and the violence women face today. The activists found strength in walking in public spaces at night, in dark streets where women are not supposed to go. Women together were powerful and not afraid, they didn’t need men to escort or accompany or rescue them. The streets really belonged to women equally on those nights. Reactions from men differed : from male passers-by shouting insults during the demonstrations to solidarity actions organised by men alongside the women’s march.
While much has been done and achieved in the 1970s and 1980s concerning women’s rights, women still face sexual, verbal and physical violence on a daily base today. So feminists continue to fight back. In the 1990s, FAM (Feministisch Anarchistische Meiden/Madammen), an anarcha-feminist group from Gent, followed the tradition of organising Heksennacht. Like other Take Back The Nights actions, only women were allowed to attend the march because it was about violence to women and there was a need for women to get together by themselves to take back the public spaces, fight against sexual abuse on the street and at home, be safe without male protection and say no collectively. As an only-women group FAM got a lot of opposition from anarchist men who complained about being excluded from their favourite pub when FAM organised a women’s party there.
FAM stopped around 2003, but a few years later a queer collective was founded in Gent, Queerilla, who continued organising Heksennacht – they spelled it Hexennacht. These Take Back The Night marches were open for everyone to attend, people of all and any gender. And the subject slightly changed too. Not only violence to women was addressed, but also violence to transgender people, lesbians, bisexuals and gays.
The politics of violence and gender identity
In 2008 a new feminist group was born in Gent, FAB (stands for Feministische ActieBende, feminist action gang) , later renamed to FEL (Feministisch en Links, feminist and left). They took over the job of organising the yearly Heksennacht. First in the footsteps of Queerilla – addressing violence to women, transgender people, lesbians, gays and bisexuals at the same time – and the next year focussing more on violence to women. I was involved in the organisation too, so this might be a subjective account :
Violence to women. It seemed like a normal topic for an action. Something everyone can support. The official women’s rights organisations (who may have seemed less radical than us) launch campaigns on November 25th and ordinary women are against violence to women and sympathised with our action. Violence to women, it still happened and it was still wrong, so we assumed the local radical activist movements would show their solidarity and support. But we didn’t realise that a backlash in our own ranks had taken place...
Violence to WOMEN ?? And what about violence to men ? (1) But I don’t identify as a woman. (2) But I don’t want to be victimised. (3)
This more or less enumerates the comments  we got when our action was announced and the subjects of the discussions afterwards. Especially online, on indymedia and facebook, activists from the local queer / anti-capitalist scene shouted their comments and criticisms. More than a year later, looking back, I think most of it stems from anti-feminist feelings, fear of displeasing men and an apolitical vision of gender identity, oppression and violence that our society has pushed and that even the radical queers have swallowed without thinking. I’ll try to explain why I disagree with the above comments : (1) And what about violence to men ? Someone even suggested changing the topic of Heksennacht to violence against all living creatures, in order not to exclude animals, plants, the earth...
But let’s talk about men : It is my impression that men have a strong influence in the queer and anarchist/anti-capitalist movement in Gent, as they do in other movements and organisations in this world. Similar to when FAM was active, men are rarely interested in being active feminists (we’re still waiting for the Men Against Sexism group to be founded in Gent) but at the same time they complain if actions are not about them (but I don’t see them complain during animal rights actions) or if they aren’t allowed to participate (everything is dominated by men, can we have a space/moment of our own too ?) even if they wouldn’t be interested to participate anyway. And the women in those movements ? There seems to be a fear to hurt their men, to exclude or even criticise the so-called good guys. It’s a taboo to speak about violence to women, but an even greater taboo to speak about violence by men.
(2) But I don’t identify as a woman. Not identifying as a woman was mentioned as a reason for not being interested in or not supporting a march against violence to women. But it’s not because you aren’t a woman, that you can’t support an action that fights for women’s rights. As a feminist friend said during the discussions about Heksennacht : I don’t identify as a tree, but I do want to fight for the protection of forests. Actions don’t always need to be about you, in order to feel the responsibility and interest to help out and show solidarity.
Of course the definition of women should be trans-inclusive (FEL is a group with mostly ciswomen , but also some transwomen and transgender people) and I think it would be OK for a Take Back The Night to focus on violence to women and transgender people. Transgender Remembrance Day takes place on November 20th, so something could be organised that makes both violence to women and violence to transgender people visible. But that doesn’t mean that violence to women is not relevant anymore, that actions that focus on violence against women are suddenly wrong or that we can’t speak of women anymore. We need to, or our analysis of violence will become genderblind and meaningless. We need to, because if we refuse to see who the victims are and what the problem is, we can’t think of solutions and take effective action.
I think one of the problems of an apolitical view on gender identity and queer theory is that the difference between individual gender identity (how you identify yourself) and collective gender category (the socially or culturally constructed gender, the gender position you have in society) is mixed up. Society sees me and treats me as a woman, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I identify as a woman. I am part of women as a social gender category and I think sisterhood – solidarity between women, those who identify as women and/or those who are seen as women by society – is not only powerful, but also necessary.
(3) But I don’t want to be victimised. This referred to our flyer which listed common situations in which women are feel threatened by violence, take precautions or face violence/harassment and such a comment is another sign of the anti-feminist backlash is the absolute fear and hostility of the word victim. If someone is attacked, raped, abused, murdered, she IS a victim. This is an objective fact. Of course nobody wants to be a victim of violence. But actions that address violence to women don’t make someone a victim, it’s violence that does, and our actions want to stop that. Besides, being a victim of violence doesn’t mean you/we are passive or powerless or that you/we can’t fight back and resist. Often the word survivor is preferred to describe victims of violence, but in reality sometimes we aren’t able to survive, sometimes we can’t fight back, sometimes the suffering goes on. In this way, I prefer the word victim as it refers more to the evil that has been done, no matter the reaction of the person who suffered the evil.
FEL tried hard to explain our point of view, our motivations and our strategy during a few debates and workshops at anarchist gatherings. We wrote down an explanation to defend our choice to focus on violence to women this year and we responded patiently to the online comments. Some people now understood, saying they had no clue about the history of Take Back The Night / Heksennacht and about the importance of fighting against violence to women. And some people still don’t seem to want to hear our arguments...
Heksennacht 2010 in Gent
November 25th started approaching again. A few women and collectives originating from the queer/anti-capitalist movement took the initiative to organise the Heksennacht this time. FEL intended to take part in the organisation but it was too difficult to write a common text for the leaflet everyone could all agree on – the same discussions seemed to happen all over again – so we withdrew from any organisational roles . Instead FEL was still supporting and joining the action, making a flyer about consent and writing one of the speeches (apparently the only one about violence to women, the others were about violence by the police, violence to gay men, violence to transgender people and sexual abuse of children).
So we went to the action and just had fun. The speeches were great and the organisers had made very useful flyers about Step Up, Step Back as advice to anti-sexist men. But it was strange too. Almost only men on the front lines (who probably didn’t read that flyer), shouting Hiya Hiya Hiya, Viva Anarchia and One solution : revolution. We must have been lost ? We must have ended up in the wrong demonstration ? Was this Take Back The Night ? So members of FEL used our megaphone to shout Viva Feminista and Women unite, take back the night instead. This last slogan caused another online riot. Actually naming those who are oppressed and violated and those who have to take back the streets and the night – whether they are women or LGBT people – instead of shouting the harmless and meaningless slogan genders unite... apparently it was not done. Some people who attended the Heksennacht didn’t seem to notice that certain genders already own the night, especially those in the front rows...
And next year ?
Vrouwen Overleg Komitee, a feminist organisation who’ve been organising national women’s days on November 11th each year since 1972, chose the theme violence for the women’s day they’ll organise this year in Leuven. They were thinking about including a Take Back The Night. If they do, FEL will certainly join and help them. Maybe we’ll also organise a Take Back The Night in the spring or summer, less rainy than in November hopefully. With the support of Vrouwen Overleg Komitee, we can probably do a bigger more powerful and inspiring action. Who says we need to convince those manarchists anyway ? So see you in the streets in 2011 !
Thanks to all members of FEL especially Evie and Sara who have researched and explained the backgrounds and meaning of Heksennacht and Take Back The Night.
 On this day, women’s rights activists and feminist organisations remember the three Mirabal Sisters, political activists in the Dominican Republic who were brutally assassinated on the orders of the Dominican ruler Rafael Trujillo on November 25th 1960. In 1999, November 25th became the official Day For The Elimination Of Violence Against Women by the United Nations. Apart from Take Back The Night, the white ribbon campaign, another action against violence to women, usually takes place on this day. The white ribbon is a sign for men to pledge to not use violence against women and not allow violence by other men. It was started after the murder of female students at the University of Montreal. A man shot and killed 14 female students, after sending away the male students. As a reaction a group of men started the white ribbon campaign to show their solidarity with the women and their disgust with the murder.  Of course there were also the typical ignorant comments about how feminism is really the same as (reverse) sexism.  Ciswomen are non-transgenderwomen.  In the end, the text for the leaflet was actually quite good, something FEL could have supported, so I wonder if this was caused by our arguments.