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reclaiming the night: a chat with activist natalie pestana

Image: Natalie Pestana

Image: Natalie Pestana

Thousands of women will take to the streets of Melbourne this Saturday 18 October to protest harassment and violence against women.

Natalie Pestana is usually photographing live bands at pubs and clubs around Melbourne, but three years ago she took her anger about the press reporting around the rape and murder of Jill Meagher and put her energy into becoming an organiser of the annual Reclaim the Night march, working with a committee of equally committed feminist activists. Natalie was good enough to give her time to Lip to talk about what the Reclaim the Night movement means.

How did you get involved with the Reclaim the Night movement?
By accident. I was ranting away about an article by Clementine Ford on victim blaming when Jill Meagher went missing (we didn’t know what happened at that point) with friends on my Facebook page.
One of my friends, Sara Brocklesby and I were both thinking at the same time, ‘wow it’s been a while since we’ve been to a Reclaim the Night’ and then thought ‘oooh we should do a special one on Sydney Rd’. We went searching to see if we could find the organisers of the Melbourne one, but couldn’t really see anything, so we went ahead organising ours. It turns out nothing had been organised for 2012 so our satellite event became the Melbourne event.
And what started as a small page for just friends, swelled. The next thing you know we were on Triple J!

This is the 35th anniversary of the Reclaim the Night movement. Could you tell our readers what it is and why it started?
It actually started in 1976 at the International Tribunal on Crimes against Women in Brussels.
However, I have since learnt that contrary to most reports it wasn’t a march but a celebration. Last year Vince Chadwick from The Age wrote a fantastic article that I highly recommend.
Somehow it spread around. I do know in the UK, women marched in response to police telling them to stay at home; [it was] the same in the US when there was a serial killer on the loose targeting women.
It’s also known in the US as “Take Back the Night” – not as punchy as “Reclaim!

Stories in the media about violence against women seem to be on the rise. Do you think this is simply a matter of more cases being reported, or is there actually an increase in violence toward women?
I think it’s a bit of both in all honesty; it’s really hard to say. One thing that is heartening is these stories are getting reported on, but the disheartening thing is journalists and editors are still reporting them incorrectly. The focus is always on the victim’s actions and the perpetrator is seen as the one hard done by, especially in cases of domestic violence: ‘he just snapped’, ‘he was a lovely guy’, ‘he had to nurse her through her sickness’, etc. etc. It’s always about the male perpetrator “snapping”.
Also when it comes to crimes against sex workers, women with a disability, women of colour, trans women, they get the nastiest salacious headlines that violate her private life. As if a woman’s employment has anything to do with the crime. Not to mention those women deserve our anger when violence is inflicted upon them.
We march for ALL women, not just the one who fits a mainstream demographic. The media has been fairly irresponsible with that.

Has the message of the march changed at all during the time you have been involved?
I cannot speak for previous organisers though from what I gather seeing, their organising meeting minutes is that modern RTNs in Melbourne have made a concerted effort to be inclusive of all women, especially women I’ve mentioned above.
We need to ensure all women are lifted, not just the select few. Importantly we need to ensure that their voices are heard and they get to speak for themselves and their experiences.
Apart from that, the overall message has remained the same; it’s just that we need to ensure in our organising model that we adapt it to ensure that all women are included – through the language of our invitations, safe space policy, etc.

I notice on the Reclaim the Night website that men are being invited to attend the march. I understand that is a controversial decision. Could you explain the rationale for the decision?
For us we felt that it was important to pay homage with our history – that women can reclaim spaces without men and that a women’s only space in public is important for our fight for gender equality. However, we have men as allies who would like to march, so we have allowed for a mixed gender section at the back of the march.
All of our options felt wrong – men on the sides, men just behind us – and they still had connotations that were the antithesis of what Reclaim the Night is about. It was an organiser at 2012 that came up with what we thought the perfect solution – women identifying space only at the front and mixed at the back.

What would success look like to you, in terms of the event itself, and in the longer term?
That we get a bigger crowd every year and that part of the crowd is people who don’t ordinarily go to things like these. Also that people listen to the speakers and try to take what they have to say and adapt it into their lives.
We need to change our culture and how we think and how we do things in relation to women. In every single facet we are currently still the “other” and the default is very much so a man’s space.

Reclaim the night this Saturday 18 October, 2014 @ 6.30pm, Brunswick Town Hall (Cnr Dawson St & Sydney Rd, Brunswick)
Theme: “35 years light the night”
RSVP via Facebook

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