#WomenMakeSheffield: Resisting sexual violence in the Steel City

March 2021: Moving tributes were placed around Devonshire Green, expressing the collective grief felt by women in Sheffield at the death of Sarah Everard. Picture: Chris Etchells / The Star.

For our latest #WomenMakeSheffield blog post, Cai met a number of activists engaged in  campaigning against sexual violence within the Steel City. Through our discussion with the co-organisers of last year’s vigils for Sarah Everard, student-led campaign Our Bodies, Our Streets and one of the co-founders of local anti-racist collective Take the Knee, we discovered the wide-ranging means through which the women of Sheffield are taking action against gendered violence. This short post does not do justice to the importance of their work, but SFA wants to provide a small platform through which to document their voices. 

One of the most poignant themes that emerged in our discussions with these women was the spirit of collective solidarity giving life to their movements. Violence against women and girls is understood not as an individual problem, but as a shared grievance requiring a collective and community-driven response. It was this urge to gather that brought together hundreds of women in the wake of the horrifying murder of Sarah Everard in 2021, with Sheffield being one of the many cities in which vigils were held in her memory. One of the co-organisers of the vigil spoke of the raw emotions she felt upon seeing the news of Sarah’s death; “Every time things like this happen, you have that moment of [thinking]… will anything change? How can I, as an individual, gather with people who feel the same as me?”

Following the example of women across the country, she reached out on social media to find out if there was a vigil going ahead in Sheffield, soon discovering that there was a shared desire to come together across the city. As growing numbers of women expressed interest in joining the Reclaim These Streets collective, including those with no previous experience within feminist activism, she describes the transformative transition into feeling “powerful rather than powerless”. Despite disappointment at the physical vigil being called off following threats from the South Yorkshire Police Service, images filled local media outlets of the moving tributes that filled spaces on Devonshire Green in the form of candles, flowers and messages expressing solidarity with victims of gendered violence. 

September 2021: Members of the Sheffield community gather to light candles and grieve for Sabina Nessa at a vigil organised by Our Bodies, Our Streets and a coalition of local campaign groups. Picture: The Star.

A delve into the Women’s Papers housed at the Sheffield City Archives reveals the long legacy of resistance against sexual violence in the Steel City, from the huge Reclaim the Night marches of the early 80s spurned by the horrific actions of the Yorkshire Ripper, to attempts to establish community self-defence initiatives and peer support groups. Such self-organised communities of resistance are once again emerging across the city, with the founding of the intersectional feminist collective Our Bodies, Our Streets (OBOS) in June 2020, with a mission to “campaign for safer spaces free from public sexual harassment through creativity, protest and empowerment”. The principles of community engagement and collaboration are central to their strategy, with the group leading a coalition of Sheffield collectives that held a vigil in memory of Sabina Nessa – another woman lost to gendered violence in September. The event saw people of all genders and ages come together to share their collective grief and anger at the further loss of life.

Amongst those in attendance was Yaz, the founder of local anti-racist collective Take The Knee, who reflected on the emotionally charged atmosphere at the vigil as one in which “people actually felt like it was a safe space to get up and talk… they didn’t think they were actually going to speak, and they did speak… and we needed to hear their voices.” Streets that many of these women have learnt to walk in fear were transformed for those few hours into a site of mutual understanding and the breaking of silences. Such spaces will continue to colour the Sheffield landscape, as the OBOS plan “to host vigils regularly, rather than waiting for a high profile femicide. We feel that this is important to keep the victims in our memory and show solidarity to their families and communities”. 

Pictured: Residents of Sheffield attending one of the many protest actions organised by local anti-racist collective Take The Knee, with women like Yaz leading these expressions of collective solidarity with victims of racism in Sheffield and beyond. Picture provided by Sheffield Take The Knee.

Driven by a vision of social transformation, the activism of Sheffield women is one that recognises gendered violence to be a product of existing structures of power, demanding resistance on all fronts. Yasmin expressed the power to be found in challenging the divide and conquer strategy of the national press that seeks to legitimise existing structures of violence and hide “the real connection between systemic sexism and systemic racism” that “sustains a culture of violence against women and people of colour”. As a founding member of Sheffield Take The Knee, an anti-racist collective formed in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, she believes that education and consciousness raising are some of the most powerful weapons available to Sheffield organisers in challenging the normalisation of state violence. Central to building this consciousness has been establishing a visible presence on the streets of the Steel City, through weekly protests at which activists take the knee as an expression of solidarity against racist violence. One of the most powerful outcomes of these women-led actions from within the Sheffield community has been, for Yasmin, that “it is really empowering for young women to see, and to hear our voices and not be shouted down like we have for years.” It is at moments when violence dominates the media that “we think about what kind of world we are bringing our children into”, and most importantly “what power…we have to empower them.”

We could look at the contemporary socio-political situation and feel cynical about the prospect of long term transformation – contemporary demands closely echo those found in material from the 1970s Women’s Movement in Sheffield. None of the individuals we spoke to believed that the physical and emotional labour involved in this type of activism had shifted away from the shoulders of those most impacted by sexual violence. Growing encroachments on the right to protest throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and included within the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill have raised the stakes of the decision to engage in protest action. One of the organisers of the planned vigil for Sarah Everard reflected on the “heavy decision” taken by organisers to call off the action following threats of a £10,000 fine from the local police force. A source of tension within the groups, she recounts that “we wanted it to be a moment where we felt powerful, and it ended up feeling…more jaded than that.”

Pictured: Yaz, one of the co-founders of Take The Knee, kneeling outside of Graves Art Gallery in the heart of the city centre. She asks those passing by to join her in kneeling. Picture provided by Take The Knee.

Despite these moments of disappointment, not a hint of cynicism can be detected when talking to the women of Sheffield about the future of organising in the Steel City. Reflecting further on her personal experiences of organising the vigil for Sarah Everard, the organiser we spoke to understands it as a moment of transformation within which she became more aware of “what I was capable of”, and the ability of women to come together spontaneously in a “moment of national solidarity”. This growing awareness of our own capabilities in calling out violence at all levels has been a call to action for many women, with members of TTK and OBOS participating in the Sheffield Against the Policing Bill coalition. Ending each of our conversations with a discussion on the theme of hope, these activists reflect upon the ever-present and ever-growing spirit of collective resistance and solidarity within their movements. Put simply by Yaz; “this generation is coming through, and they are coming through with a huge force… I just see so many good things happening around me within our community.” 

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