Where are the safe spaces for women in our society?

Where are the safe spaces for women in our society?

The Warwick University ‘rape chat’ scandal reveals a society where sexual violence and hate speech festers in the shadows, and safe spaces for women are non-existent.

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Universities are often held to be cultural centres of knowledge and self-expression, where people are free to learn, and the best and brightest come together to create a better future for us all. But the recent Warwick University scandal, where two male students had their original 10 year bans reduced to just 12 months for threatening to rape fellow students, has shown that not even these spaces are safe for women. Following significant online backlash the university confirmed these students would not be returning next September. Although this decision is a relief, the saga reveals the truth about modern society: there are few safe spaces for women.

This incident is just one of many where violence against women is being given a space to thrive in private, whilst women are increasingly under threat. This is not the first time that a university group has been uncovered for perpetuating sexual violence against women. A similar incident occurred at The University of Edinburgh in 2014 when the minutes from a meeting of an all-male society that contained rape threats to fellow students were leaked. The problem is so prevalent it has led the National Student Union to publishing guidelines on what university student unions can do to tackle hate speech on campus. This culture is not restricted to the university campus.

Private messaging and online platforms are allowing violence and harassment to operate in the shadows, whilst women do not even feel safe going outside. One of the victims of the Warwick University incident spoke of how this affected her mental health and feelings of safety on campus. She stopped going to classes or working her shifts on campus. Female students are increasingly afraid, and frustrated, of the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude that thrives in society. Often these hateful and frightening incidences are passed off as a joke. In this case, victims were forced to justify their fear and anger. Women are not even given a safe space to be upset or angry. They are told to laugh it off and ignore it. As one victim of the Warwick incident cited, university procedures did nothing to make spaces safer for the female students. Women are too often ignored and failed by the institutions and authorities set up to protect them. Even when the talk becomes physical violence, such as the case of ‘Incel’ violence in Toronto or ‘The Wolf Pack’ scandal in Spain, the rise of private hate speech and the issue of women’s safety is woefully ignored.

The attitudes that grow in private have a damning effect on public behaviour. In the street, women are targets of harassment simply because they are women. Some women are targets of more than just sexual or gender violence, but also of violence because of other aspects of their identity. There is a clear correlation between threats of sexual violence and other types of hate speech in the Warwick case, as the group used racial slurs and hateful language alongside their sexual threats. Unchallenged hate of women only paves the way for hate speech aimed at other groups. BAME women are especially vulnerable, attacked not just for their gender identity but for their religious or racial identity too. The more we allow private attitudes to exist unquestioned, the less safe women are. Some women, do not even have a safe space at home. Where are women safe from violence and harassment if their university, the streets they walk on, and their homes are not even safe?

Here at JAN Trust we are dedicated to giving the most vulnerable women in society a safe space to learn and feel part of the community through our workshops and classes. Our projects and campaigns on FGM and forced marriage work to help make vulnerable women’s homes a safer space for them to live without violence. We are working hard to challenge hate speech and to make young people more aware of the problem with our school workshops. Through our Web Guardians™ programme we support women in taking responsibility for their and their family’s online safety themselves. Our efforts make spaces safer for local women, and we will continue to call on others to do more to make all levels of society safer for everyone.

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