Maybe it was the closing of women’s refuges in NSW, or maybe it was the viral video of a woman harassed in Manhattan, or maybe it was just the good spring we’re enjoying in Sydney, but this time, Reclaim The Night’s rally broke through.
“Last year was a quarter the size of this,” noted a Labor attendee.
Up to 1,000 listened quietly and intently to heartfelt speeches to inform and inspire the crowd. And none more so than that from Summer (no surname).
She described the time when she and her mother were saved by a women’s refuge, and her voice quivered as she recounted the help and kind words of the woman who greeted them at the refuge.
It might’ve just been another day to that woman working at the refuge, but it touched this young woman in a way that’s visibly changed her life, and made her a steadfast advocate in Students for Wom'n-Only Services.
Another rousing moment was when Maha Abdo, Executive Officer of the United Muslim Women Association and 2014 NSW Human Rights Ambassador, defended women’s right to wear what they want.
The irony of dictating to Muslim women what they should wear because of the claim that they’re being dictated to was not lost on this crowd.
“Women can dress how they choose!” She said, beautifully tying in the ‘burqa debate’* with other discussions of how women ought to dress.
She noted that, parallel to all the stories of Muslim women being abused in the street, there have been kind smiles of support from strangers.
Labor was well represented; I noticed at least 20 faces. You could only go by faces because there were no Labor flags or signs. No one felt that this was the night for that.
It was an open rally for anyone to feel comfortable. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for the Greens and the Socialist Alliance, who brought party political signage.
Gough Whitlam wasn’t the only person branded inappropriately by the Greens in October.
The truly great thing about this rally, realised as we begun our march down Market Street, was the alignment between message and action (important for a rally).
People out on the streets were beginning their night; women who will be harassed later, and men before their behaviour takes a turn after too many drinks. Those women needed the message of support, and those men needed the messaged of warning that we were chanting, “wherever we go, whatever we wear, yes means yes, no means no."
Especially as we hit Town Hall on George Street, where everyone on a night out in Sydney passes through. Loud cars were silenced and groups of half-cocked men were made insignificant with the noise and volume of reclaimers.
The message was handed from the people who know it to the people who needed to hear it.
Distinctly, I remember one woman in a white Mercedes hatch. There might’ve been a glimpse of white pearls around her neck, or maybe I just assumed that to be the kind of thing she would wear.
She was not in the demographic I would ever assume to go to a rally, but she was fixated on us while waiting at the lights, being inconvenienced by our movement.
Her look was of mesmerised joy, with a wide smile, and a head resting against fist. Moving past her down Park Street, I heard an ecstatic horn blast behind me, both loud and repeated. I don’t know which car that was from for certain, but I had a feeling it was her.
The rally paused its chant and cheered her—it’s amazing how one person’s small sign of support brings a thousand people to a halt.
But it often does.
Just like Summer’s experience of one woman’s kindness in a time of vulnerability, or Maha’s noticing of a smile from a stranger, it seems a little compassion, a little empathy, can go a long way.
*In Australia, the burqa is rare, but the niqab (across the face, exposing the eyes) and the hijab (exposing the entire face) are more common. Problem is they don’t have the alliteration of “ban the burqa."