By: Samantha Mathers, News Editor
Sexual violence has been anything but a rare occurrence in the media this year. Jian Ghomeshi. Brock Turner. Donald Trump. As details emerge and sentences seem far too short (if they exist at all) it never gets easier to hear. But out of these tragic accounts of violence emerged something else: the voice of the survivor. Look at the Brock Turner case. In a victim impact statement that was read directly to Turner before hitting the internet and going viral, a survivor shared her story with the world. In many ways, her words reached more people and opened more eyes than a tough sentence could have.
Stories are powerful. That was evident at this year’s Take Back the Night, held on Friday at the Urban Abbey. Shortly after the event began, coordinator of the Gender Issues Centre and organizer of the event, Sherrie-Lee Petrie asked, “what does it mean to be trusted with people’s experiences?” The participants of Take Back the Night demonstrated exactly what it means. To be trusted with others’ experiences is to create a sense of community. It is to be open and let others know they are not alone. It is to hear another person’s story and know that you are not alone. It is to be a survivor. It is – as one of the night’s speakers, Jessica put it – to say “I’m still here.”
Take Back the Night is an international grassroots movement that began in the 1970s. While the term “Take Back the Night” was first used in 1978 at a national anti-pornography conference that concluded with 3,000 women marching through the red-light district of San Francisco, women had been coming together in this way all over the world. In Philadelphia in 1975, women walked through the streets holding candles after microbiologist Susan Alexander Speeth was murdered while walking home alone. In 1976, women attending the International Tribunal on Crimes against Women in Belgium marched holding candles to protest violence affecting women worldwide. After the release of rape statistics that same year, women took a stand in Rome. In 1977, women in West Germany demanded the right to exist in their communities without experiencing sexual harassment. The same year, women protested after being encouraged by police to stay indoors at night, in response to the murders of several women in England. Canadian women took to the streets at a march organized by the Fly-By-Night Collective in Vancouver in 1978.
While Take Back the Night began as a way to protest sexual violence against women, Friday night’s event took a stand against violence toward all individuals, encouraging participation regardless of gender identity. Present at the event were many community organizations to share about their resources, as well as the Sexual Abuse Centre, offering in-the- moment counselling to anyone who felt triggered throughout the evening.
Sherrie-Lee Petrie has been involved with protesting sexual violence for several years, in many different capacities. She first got involved in Winnipeg, participating in a rally in response to Justice Dewar’s comments on a rape victim’s clothing. Dewar said the way the victim and her friend were dressed “made it publicly known that they wanted to party.” Petrie saw a post online calling for someone who was survivor-identified to speak on Dewar’s comments in an interview for the University of Winnipeg’s newspaper, The Uniter. With a lot of hesitation, she responded, and shared her story for the first time. Just a few weeks later, while speaking to a group of students about campus safety at York University, Toronto Police Constable Michael Sanguinetti said “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” These comments inspired SlutWalk Toronto, a protest against victim blaming. Petrie was part of the group that organized a SlutWalk in Winnipeg. Since then, she has shared her story at Take Back the Night in Thunder Bay, first on a personal level, then speaking about her thesis, “Lived Experiences of Sexual Violence.” This year, she was hired as the coordinator of the Gender Issues Centre and had the opportunity to actually plan and run the event.
The evening began with a candlelight vigil and drumming by Elder Beatrice Twance-Hynes, to honour those affected by sexual violence and to represent the stories we would not hear – a way for people to share without speaking up on stage, a way for people to honour a loved one, a way to remember those lives that have been lost. Petrie wanted to start the evening this way, saying “our voices and stories are light.” True to that statement, the evening continued with the sharing of stories in many different forms. Exploring the topic of storytelling, Jayal shared some of her own poetry. Sharon Johnson spoke about her involvement with the Annual Full Moon Memory Walk for missing and murdered Anishinabe and Metis women. In 2005, Johnson joined a group of women planning a memorial walk to honour missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Johnson joined them to honour her sister Sandra Kaye Johnson, who lost her life to sexual violence 13 years earlier. It has now been 24 years since Johnson lost her sister, and she thinks about her every day. She shared that before the event started, someone accidentally called her Sandra – something she said happens often. Johnson said she usually doesn’t correct people, and takes it as a sign that her sister is with her. Along with the Full Moon Memory Walk, Johnson joins other groups in organizing the Annual Valentine’s Day Memorial March that honours missing and murdered Anishinabe women. Farah shared her story through poetry, where she made powerful connections between sexual violence and colonialism. Brittany shared a few words before reading a poem she wrote about her experience. She previously spoke on this topic at last year’s Feminisms conference, making recommendations to Lakehead University about what a supportive community and a trauma informed approach should look like. When asked if the University is doing so, Petrie said they are starting to. She believes there are more people in a position of power that are taking a trauma informed approach to working with survivors. Ma Nee attended Take Back the Night as a participant, but asked Petrie if she could share a few words. She spoke about her experiences and how she learned to not blame herself for them, as well as telling her story through writing and painting.
Pride Central Coordinator Nivie Singh shared a powerful poem they wrote, then fearlessly led the march with a megaphone while others followed behind carrying a banner and signs. After the emotional sharing of stories, the tone of the night shifted to a feeling of empowerment. Voices chanting together for a collective cause: “No means no.” “We won’t take it anymore.” “Survivors unite.” Before heading back to the Urban Abbey, the group paused for a smudging and prayer led by Twance-Hynes. Upon returning, those that participated in the march rejoined a group that took part in a discussion on allyship, facilitated by Esa. Coffee, tea, pastries, and music by Jen Metcalfe of Outside the Lines were enjoyed by all. As a way for participants to ground themselves, there was also a yoga session led by Dr. Jen Chisholm of Women’s Studies. The sense of community was evident, as people laughed, hugged, and talked with each other.
Now a staple on college and university campuses, Take Back the Night is about both reflection and action. It is a vigil for victims of sexual violence and a protest against that violence, but it hasn’t come without controversy. Some institutions make participation in Take Back the Night mandatory to all students. In 2015, members of the football team at Virginia Tech were forced to attend the school’s Take Back the Night event by their coach, who wanted to educate the players and show support for the cause. The players, however, were seen laughing at stories shared by survivors of sexual violence, texting each other throughout the event, and even standing up and walking out during a survivor’s story after being directly asked to returned to their seats. It is argued that mandatory attendance defeats the purpose of the event, and is hypocritical of what it stands for. Malavika Sahai, co-President of Womanspace at Virginia Tech, stated that “requiring people to go to an event encroaches on that safe space… if you don’t want to be there, you really shouldn’t be there.” Another way Take Back the Night has caused some debate is the exclusivity of the event in some places. There are marches around the world that do not allow men to participate, ignoring even male victims of sexual violence. These groups often cite that females and transgender individuals are disproportionately the victims of sexual violence and the need to create a safe space.
This type of controversy was not present at the event Friday night. Twance-Hynes shared a few words on what “taking back the night” meant to her. She spoke of balance, saying it was important to have good relationships and support from men. She also acknowledged the violence that men face. Petrie invited anyone who felt it was important for them to come on the march, as she wanted to be inclusive of not only women and men, but non-binary individuals as well. In a Facebook post prior to the event, the Gender Issues Center released a statement saying: “The march is going to be open to everyone who feels that it would be important for them to go on it… There are folks who identify as neither genders, and there are folks who identify as both genders. There are also trans folks. I want TBTN to be an inviting and safe environment for these folks… While I certainly appreciate and understand that women and LGBT folks experience sexual violence more than male-identified folks, I have had several male-identified folks share that they’ve experienced sexual violence and feel that there is rarely ever a space for them to stand with other survivors. I think that it needs to be noted that while the statistics do, indeed, show that women and trans folks experience sexual violence more often, men still experience it. And it’s still very real for them. And they, too, deserve a space to stand with other survivors. Sexual violence knows no gender. I recognize that this moves a bit away from the traditional idea of the event, but I think this is an important step towards facilitating an inclusive space.”
People came together Friday night for a wide variety of reasons. Many spoke of coming together and knowing you are part of something greater than yourself. Feeling a sense of comfort. Feeling at home. They spoke of allies, surrounding themselves with the voices of other survivors. Some came to reflect on and challenge the misogyny present in their own lives. People spoke of equality, of putting an end to violence. Mothers felt a sense of responsibility – wanting to empower their daughters, but at the same time letting them know what they must bear as women. Wanting to raise respectful, feminist sons.
While the subject matter surrounding Take Back the Night is heavy, there was an overwhelming feeling of support and community. A collective effort to make change. Joy, who also shared her experience, described taking back the night as “[kicking] holes in the darkness till the light bleeds through.” And on Friday night, that’s what we did. That’s what survivors and allies do all over the world. We kicked a small hole in a darkness that at times seems too vast to break through. It’s something, but it’s not enough. We have to do more. The violence has to end. The night has to be ours more than once a year.