Women’s emancipation symbolised by a fist. Graphic: Pixabay/Benedikt Geyer Women’s emancipation symbolised by a fist. Graphic: Pixabay/Benedikt Geyer

Lindsey German on Sarah Everard’s murder and its aftermath

The French Utopian Socialist Charles Fourier wrote that ‘One could judge the degree of civilization of a country by the social and political position of its women’.

The details of the Sarah Everard abduction, rape and murder at the hands of a serving Metropolitan Police Officer have highlighted just how bad the social and political position of women in Britain remains. This is the horrific story of a young woman subject to supposed arrest by a policeman and then to the most terrifying ordeal.

However the case has wider implications than the personal tragedy of Sarah and her family and loved ones. It speaks to the position of women in society and the role of those supposed to protect us. It also suggests that the widespread lip service to women’s rights across society does not match the reality.

Commentary from many about the case seems in denial about the fact that it was perpetrated by someone who was actually a policeman, not someone impersonating one. He used his powers to handcuff and abduct her. The advice that women in such situations should call 999, flag down a bus (even in London an unlikely possibility) or refuse to get in the car is simply unrealistic. Anyone who has tried resisting arrest or questioning why it is happening knows exactly the response we are likely to get from the Met and other police forces.

Not only that, it suggests that women should change their behaviour whereas it is the police and other institutions of state who should be changing theirs. Couzens had been accused three times of indecent exposure (twice just days before the Everard abduction). None of this affected his police career, which involved him guarding at various times civil nuclear buildings and embassies, including the US embassy, a job which allowed him to carry firearms. It has now been revealed that he was on duty in parliament on several occasions. He was in a WhatsApp group with other policemen which contained racist, sexist, and homophobic comments. Those in the Met were not immediately suspended at this discovery, although those in other forces were.

The record of the Metropolitan Police is shocking over this – the lack of proper vetting of this man, the assignment to an armed unit, the knowledge of other officers about his sexual offences, the brutal attacks on women during the vigil following Sarah’s death. Those who retain illusions that women in high places are empathetic to others should consider that both Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner who presided over this, and Priti Patel, that most right wing of Home Secretaries determined to hang on to her, are women.

They preside over a deeply racist and sexist police force, whose culture reflects a society which persistently refuses to allow equality for women and black people. Despite periodic outcries over a series of scandals, long inquiries and investigations and some minor changes, this results in a thoroughly discriminatory ‘canteen culture’ and a policing policy which targets and criminalises ethnic minorities and treats women all too often as a series of degraded stereotypes. The Spycops revelations about undercover police having affairs with women political activists show the contempt in which women are held. Prosecutions for domestic violence and rape are at all time lows, and police involvement in domestic violence in their own relationships is above the average.

Shocking revelations in the Sunday Mirror showed that 26 Metropolitan Police officers have committed sex crimes since 2016, including rape and possessing indecent images of children, and two were sent to prison in April, after Sarah’s murder.

Surely at the very minimum Cressida Dick should resign, the Police Bill, which gives them more restrictive powers, should be withdrawn, and there should be a series of demands to improve women’s safety from the police – which doesn’t involve more police! At root, the role of the police is to protect those who own wealth and power in society. The poor, the oppressed, trade unionists, have always been subject to the sort of hostile policing that reflects that.

If the Everard case raises so many questions about the nature of the police it also does so about the treatment of women in capitalist society. As many commentaries have endorsed in recent months, every woman fears the threat of attack. Nearly every woman has suffered some sort of sexual attack or harassment. The high-profile cases around Me Too are only the tip of the iceberg, with women at work subject to sexual harassment and women in the home facing violence – two women a week in Britain die at the hands of partners.

There’s also the economic violence: women’s pay remains much lower than men’s, they carry the burden of domestic labour, they are often denied maternity rights, they work in some of the lowest paid and least valued jobs, their healthcare and reproductive rights are under threat.

There is a common narrative that women have won their rights – that there was the campaign for the vote more than 100 years ago, then the women’s liberation movement in the 60s and 70s which achieved women’s economic and social independence. There only need to be minor adjustments for full equality – some gender pay gap reporting, more women in high profile positions, diversity policies. The reality is that, despite the very real advances for women in recent decades, these are structural inequalities which go to the heart of capitalist society.

Women’s oppression is rooted in their role in the family and the social reproduction of labour. It is therefore central to the whole system and we will need to overthrow the system to begin to end it. The rights that we have won had to be forced from capital and many of them have still not been realised.

I found it incredible that Labour MP David Lammy said last week that some women were ‘dinosaurs’ who were ‘hoarding their rights’. The statement shows a complete ignorance and disregard for the actual situation of women. The term also suggests that women have a surfeit of rights, some of which they can give away. This is insulting to women and does not help the debate over trans and women’s rights.

The truth is that we can – and have to – respect the rights of both women and trans people without suggesting that women have to give up some of their rights in order for others to gain. Indeed that would only serve to worsen women’s oppression. In the light of the Sarah Everard and other terrible cases of rape and murder involving women like Bibaa Henry, her sister Nicole Smallman, and most recently young teacher Sabina Nessa, this is not the time to suggest a retreat from the right to have single sex spaces for women.

Instead we should be looking at how we defend the rights oppressed groups already have and discussing how we can extend them. That isn’t done by denigrating women or suggesting that because they are the largest oppressed group they face fewer problems. In fact their oppression is at the root of all sexual oppression.  

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.