Reclaim the Night: A man’s view

Despite initial doubts, JOE WHITWELL says that Reclaim the Night is better off without men.

Cambridge Feminism Joe Whitwell Men reclaim the night social justice solidarity women

I attended the Reclaim the Night solidarity march. I went to record footage for CamFM and to be honest if I wasn’t there for that purpose I wouldn’t have been there at all.

I say this because I disagreed with the one of the fundamental premises of the event: that the march was for self-identifying women only. I thought it was wrong that men who wanted to go to support the cause were not allowed to march with the main event.

Waiting with a group of friends by Parker’s Piece, I saw a steady stream of women on their way to the march. The atmosphere was like a carnival, like when you go to watch a football match and both sides’ fans are in good spirits. I felt like I was missing out. The fact that I was effectively banned from attending made me want to go even more. Childish? Certainly. A fairly typical response? Probably.

Being made to walk in the opposite direction to Round Church where the men’s march was due to start felt like a step back for gender equality. I wanted to show my support at the main event, not be banished to a corner of town like a naughty child. It’s the problem a lot of men have with feminism, I think. There is a lot of good-will out there but also a general tendency to feel like we are putting our foot in it, most of the time.

A step back for gender equality?

The atmosphere at Round Church was somewhat more sombre. The Carnival was more of a slightly awkward gathering on a street corner. The number of people attending (around 15) was obviously far fewer, too.

The organiser stood on a wall and gave a little speech as did a second speaker about the White Ribbon Campaign. The amassed crowd were then asked if they would like to say anything. Would anybody like to speak? Silence.

Nobody said anything, for what, to me, felt like a long time.

And then, somebody did.

The men’s march lacked atmosphere

One by one, rather shuffling forward awkwardly, people started to speak. What people said was often spontaneous, mostly unstructured and not always particularly articulate. One person spoke of a sexual assault he had experienced and how it put all the numbers into perspective for him. Another person spoke about how, as an LGBT person, he could empathise with what it felt like to be physically threatened when out at night. Somebody spoke about male privilege. Somebody about a time he questioned a man when he catcalled a woman. Somebody else told the story of a time he found a drunk girl in a short dress scared in town. He explained how he walked her home and how he felt good about it.

There was no planning to it. It wasn’t eloquent or prepared, but it was honest and because of that, it was profoundly moving. It was also better as an all-male space. Nobody felt that by them speaking, they were denying a woman the chance to speak. We didn’t feel like we were tripping up over the correct terminology. It was just a frank sharing of experience and viewpoint.

The event is about exchanging viewpoints

It is a commonly held belief that it is difficult to get men to speak about things. I believe this to be mostly true.  I also believe that if a woman, or group of women, had been there outside that church, those men wouldn’t have told those stories. We wouldn’t have applauded each other or opened up in such a way. Perhaps the women wouldn’t have done the same thing on Parker’s Piece. But I don’t know for sure; you’d have to ask them.

We waited for the main march to meet us outside the Senate House and could hear it long before it came into sight. The spectacle was powerful, as was the cheer when the two groups recognised each other and converged. I was struck by how commanding the vision of an all-female march was. I really don’t think the presence of men would have added anything to the party.

Reclaim the Night is about a specific problem that women face. As a symbolic gesture it is important that men do not take part. You can’t reclaim a night with a chaperone. I believe the gender segregation made the night better for those women who took part. It made a stronger statement and was probably a very uplifting experience for those involved.

However, it was also better for the men there too. We opened up more than we would have. We confronted the statistics that were read out and talked about our own family members or friends who have been victims of assault or rape.

Ultimately, when the time came, we were happy to step in line behind the main march, letting them lead the way. Which, as far as feminism is concerned, is probably how it should be.