SOMETIMES one wants to simply write about events long past. Out of sheer ‘boredom’ with current events or perhaps because it is so difficult to make sense of what is happening — the reason can be one or many. And for some reason, I have been reading up on Black Friday. Not the one the Western world associates with sales but an earlier one back in 1910. Perhaps before sales were a ‘thing’.
It was at a time when women in Great Britain still did not have the right to vote. And many thought this is how the world was meant to be — that as their sons and husbands would exercise the right, the women behind them would find expression too.
But some of them expected more. They wanted the right to vote and were promised a limited right to do so by a government which then reneged on its promise. And on this particular Friday, they walked on to parliament in London and decided to force an entry. There were 300 of them; it is said they were confronted by policemen in even greater numbers, many of whom had not dealt with women protesters before.
The confrontation is said to have lasted hours. The women were beaten, assaulted, thrown about and the policemen and bystanders were said to have behaved equally brutally.
In fact, the protesters alleged policemen in civilian clothing were part of the crowds who too mistreated them. Black eyes and bleeding noses were common. The day ended with the arrest of over 100 women and four men — it shows what the problem was or rather who was seen to be the problem.
However, all of them were released without any further inquiry or actions. The decision to let everyone go had been made by the then home secretary, Winston Churchill, and it was alleged back then that this decision was made only because, had the matter gone any further, the police brutality would also have been highlighted.
There has also been a lengthy back-and-forth about whether or not the government ordered the police to behave in this heinous manner with the protesters. But the women did testify to what happened on that day and those testimonies exist to this day.
Sexual violence is still used to deter women from playing an active role in public life and politics.
“Several times constables and plain-clothes men who were in the crowds passed their arms round me from the back and clutched hold of my breasts in as public a manner as possible, and men in the crowd followed their example … My skirt was lifted up as high as possible, and the constable attempted to lift me off the ground by raising his knee. This he could not do, so he threw me into the crowd and incited the men to treat me as they wished.”
Another testimony read: “One policeman … put his arm round me … saying as he did so, ‘You have been wanting this for a long time, haven’t you’.” A disabled woman had her wheelchair damaged so she could not move. She had been forced to a side street and was assaulted.
And despite the appearance on the front page of a newspaper of a picture in which a woman protester was lying on the ground, with policemen standing over her, the press in general was not sympathetic to the women.
The latter were criticised for violence, while the police force was covered with empathy. Later, two women even died, and there were fears their deaths were linked to the injuries they received that day.
And the violence had its impact on the women, the suffragettes. They backed down, and stopped participating in the movement. Others became wary of demonstrations and preferred quick actions such as breaking windows which would allow them to make a rapid exit before the police arrived.
But it seems as if using violence, especially sexual violence, to deter women from playing a more active role in public life and politics is a tactic still around. Some months ago, Zubeida Mustafa, a senior op-ed writer for this paper, wrote of how police behaved towards the inhabitants of a colony who were resisting the demolition of their homes so a road could be widened.
“The last straw came when they started hauling up the demonstrators, and in their haste to wind up the show, they physically picked up three minor girls — tearing off the hijab of one of them — and dumped them in the police van. They were allegedly taken to the Nazimabad thana. That itself was a violation of the rules: they should have been taken directly to the Liaquatabad women’s police station, where they were eventually sent after having been brutalised the whole day at the Nazimabad thana.
“It was heart-wrenching to hear the account of how they [the women] were thrashed on their thighs, scratched and bitten on their faces while attempts were allegedly also made by booted law enforcers to attack their private parts.
They were made to clean the toilets and offered urine when they asked for drinking water. They were let off a little before midnight, when community leaders came to their rescue.“ This extract is from a piece she wrote last December.
But I digress. I was writing about an event long gone. However, such is the absence of intellectual rigour in journalists that we tend to flit from event to event. But Black Friday had been on my mind because it does remind us of the long journey of women and the violence they suffered and continue to suffer to get equal rights.
Equal rights to vote and perhaps to protest and be treated even more brutally than male protesters. Because even the right to protest unsettled the men in power.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2023