I have been sexually harassed in Edinburgh. I have been filmed in Waverley Station. Made to feel uncomfortable on a Lothian bus. Groped in almost every club in the city. Followed, shouted at, grabbed and harassed on so many of the city’s streets I have lost count. Yet I am “lucky” nothing worse has happened to me.
On March 3, Sarah Everard was walking home from her friend's flat in Clapham. A week later a male police officer was arrested and charged with her kidnap and murder.
The same week the UN released the statistic that 97 per cent of young women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces.
There has been an outpouring of women sharing their stories about the everyday harassment, assault and abuse they have faced.
Everard’s death and this shocking yet unsurprising statistic have resonated with women all over the country, including here in Edinburgh.
On Saturday women across the city came together in solidarity virtually and held an online vigil to commemorate Sarah and share their personal experiences.
The vigil was originally intended to be in person at Holyrood but was cancelled due to concerns over Covid. Kat Cary, one of the organisers of the #Reclaimthesestreets Edinburgh vigil, spoke to Keep Edinburgh Thriving about her reaction to last week's events and why she decided to take part in creating this event.
“It was shocking, maybe not surprising, but it was shocking. And it was horrifying. It's less that it's a surprise and it's more that it's difficult to be reminded of all the unconscious things that we do every day to stay safe.
“It's so maddening to know that even when you're doing everything, the way you're supposed to, that this can happen. It's just insult to injury that it is a police officer arrested for the crime. That's just an added dimension, that someone that's supposed to be protecting our safety was arrested for the crime.
“I just wanted to stand with other women and men, with whoever, who came together in the community, who wanted to stand six feet apart and have a moment of silence and recognise how horrible this was. And just to have that sense of togetherness.
Cary added: “No matter what success you have an online event, you cannot duplicate that sense of community and togetherness that you get by being in person.”
Speaking about what the future may hold to keep the conversation going, Cary said:
“We've had a lot of discussions about how it's not socially acceptable for women to get startled. You can't say sorry, I thought you're an attacker, for a minute"
"Because a lot of times, it is somebody that just comes in your periphery that's perfectly innocent.
“I talked with one of the organisers of reclaiming the streets in Glasgow, about what steps they're taking, moving forward and to speak to each other and keep this going. I think a lot of the anger with everything and with getting it [the vigil] cancelled, has inspired us to keep acting, even though it's so soon afterwards. It is important to keep on this but we have to pace ourselves because we don’t want to burn out.”
Martha Reilly and Imogen Luczyc-Wyhowska, both students, wanted to attend Saturday’s vigil but after its cancellation decided to find another way to allow women to show solidarity beyond social media without breaching restrictions.
Luczyc-Wyhowskasaid: “We felt like we wanted to put something together not just to raise awareness, but also grieve for Sarah. We started looking at things we could do in community-based spaces in public, where restrictions aren't going to affect us. We had this idea, why don't we start a tree and encourage people to tie ribbons and notes to it as a way for them feel like they're in solidarity with Sarah and those affected by gender-based violence.”
The flatmates created ‘Sarah’s Tree’ in the Meadows on Saturday and spread the word about it on social media and by the time they went back to see it on Sunday, the tree had been adorned with a multitude of colourful notes and ribbons.
Reilly said: “It highlighted the difference between the importance of having something in person and beyond social media. Sort of recognizing and marking this moment, because it's such an emotional moment for so many people. And so many people saw themselves in Sarah. I think we could all do with an opportunity to sort of process personal grief in our way.
“And we didn't feel the need to tell people how to interact with the tree or how to engage with the tree. It was just so wonderful that people just sort of did it in their way. A busker came and sat by playing on the guitar.
“Someone came and was handing out ribbons to anyone who might have not had one of their own because you can't go to shops right now and we were worried that would be a barrier. And people who didn't have ribbons came and brought flowers. People made their signs. People were talking to each other. They've had so many wonderful spontaneous interactions around the tree. And it was just really special for us that it became its own organic thing.”
Despite the overwhelmingly positive response, there have been a few negative ones but Reilly and Luczyc-Wyhowska have taken this in their stride and are using the tree as a platform for change.
Reilly said: “There have been a couple of more cynical responses too – people saying, how is pink ribbon on a tree gonna make us any safer, which we want to respectfully engage with and say is absolutely true. We're directing campaign attention right now to improving the lighting and CCTV on the Meadows. And we're in talks with different community groups right now about how to advocate for that. But we also know that's not going to uproot the causes of gender-based violence.”
Luczyc-Wyhowska said: “Firstly, there's improving the safety and public spaces in Edinburgh. This is where we're based with students here. So that's our focus at the moment. So Martha was saying, starting with CCTV, and lights in the Meadows, that's a starting point, but there's so much more that can be done.
"The other way we're approaching this is by looking at it on a national scale as we've had many people contacting us saying they'd like to start a tree in the areas that they're located in"
“Our slogan is ‘our parks, our bodies’ just to reflect that reclamation of ownership over our own communities and obviously, our own bodies and the fact that we deserve to exist in them free from the threat of violence.”
They have also set up a just giving page through the Sarah’s Tree Instagram to raise money for Shakti Women's Aid, a voluntary organisation that offers support and information to all black minority ethnic women and their children experiencing and or fleeing from domestic abuse.
Like most young women in this country, Sarah's story made me scared, emotional and angry all at the same time.
At the start of this article, I mentioned my own experiences of sexual harassment in public places in Edinburgh.
I did not report a single one of these instances to the police.
Some of them I didn’t tell anyone about at all because I was so used to it they stopped feeling abnormal. I am part of the 97 per cent of women who have been sexually harassed in public and the 96 per cent that didn’t report it.
The momentum of #ReclaimTheseStreets makes me feel like real change is afoot. When I see more women shouting louder, fighting harder and standing together it gives me hope for the future.
However, the heavy burden can’t just be on women to advocate for change. To make Edinburgh’s streets and beyond safer, violence and harassment against women need to be addressed as a societal issue.