Spray, alarms, defence classes: UK women ‘arm up’ after murders

The shocking killings of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa have prompted a national reckoning on women’s safety in Britain.

Signs and flowers are left under a tree near the Clapham Common bandstand following the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard [File: Dylan Martinez/Reuters]

London, United Kingdom – Nadia Mohammad was busy at work when she heard the news about Sabina Nessa – the 28-year-old teacher who was killed in a south London park while walking to meet a friend.

“I felt shock and disbelief. That could have been me, it could have been any one of us,” 24-year-old Mohammad, a dental nurse who lives in the English capital, told Al Jazeera.

“It made me realise that I don’t want to feel defenceless in the face of danger. I want to feel empowered to fight back. Even if we never know how we might respond in a situation like that, I just want to train my reflexes so I can defend myself.”

Nessa’s death, on September 17, further heightened fears among British women, as it came six months after the murder of Sarah Everard.

This week, a court heard that Nessa and the suspect accused of killing her were not known to one another. Everard’s murderer, who was a serving police officer when he carried out his crime, also did not know his victim. He was sentenced to life in prison on Thursday.

With public trust in police falling as concerns over women’s safety mount, some are taking matters into their own hands.

“I was planning to restart martial arts anyway, but what happened to Sabina has pushed me to rejoin now,” said Mohammad.

“I especially like grappling, which is a lot of floor and defence-related work.

“I really feel that martial arts training should be a government-funded thing for people from certain socioeconomic backgrounds, who can’t afford to pay for private classes. I’m lucky that I can pay for mine, but not everyone is in this position.”

But she is also aware that self-defence is not a singular solution.

“It’s definitely a systemic thing. We shouldn’t have to feel like we are on the defence all the time. We should be able to walk and feel safe. But when are we going to ever reach that stage?” Mohammad said.

“I feel we are in a vicious cycle that keeps repeating. And this is what needs to be addressed. Words are meaningless. We need action.”

Sabina Nessa, a primary school teacher, was killed on the evening of September 17 while walking through a London park [File: Metropolitan Police/AP]

‘It’s men killing us’

After Everard’s murder, the government launched Project Vigilant, a pilot scheme slammed over its proposal to protect women with undercover police officers in nightclubs.

Jamie Klingler, co-founder of the Reclaim These Streets campaign group, said neither self-defence nor government initiatives were likely to make women safer.

“Men need to stop raping and killing us. Kickboxing is not going to change that. It’s about stopping the cause of violence, not further arming ourselves,” Klingler said.

Heart-shaped rape alarms handed out at Sabina’s vigil was not the answer, either, she said.

“You’re giving me a girly cutesy alarm and asking me to wait for some knight in shining armour to rescue me. It’s missing the point, it’s not protection. It’s calling for someone else to help you. Real protection comes from reforming the criminal justice system. Putting the onus of women being murdered on women takes away from what police are responsible for, and the fact it’s men killing us.”

She accused the government of failing to consult with groups aimed at combatting violence against women and girls, and called for funding for groups that educate people about sexual consent.

‘Women are fundamentally unsafe on the streets’

Laila Hussein*, 35, told Al Jazeera she was attacked a week before Nessa’s murder and that the “shock of knowing she was the same colour as me” propelled her to move more quickly with her own police complaint.

“It honestly didn’t occur to me that she was brown, and when I realised she was, I thought, ‘What the f***?’. When we hear of Muslim women being killed, it’s often by someone they know.

“I’ve never heard of a brown Muslim woman getting murdered by a total stranger in the UK and never thought myself to be in that risky category of slim white blonde women.”

Even so, this stark realisation has not compelled her to “arm up and carry spray”.

“If I’m walking around with one hand gripping my spray ready to hit the trigger button, the fear will show on my face. I don’t want to walk around feeling scared and with this permanent reminder that women are fundamentally unsafe on the streets.”

So far this year, at least 109 women in the UK have been killed by men, or in instances where a man is the principal suspect, according to Counting Dead Women, a group that tracks femicide in the country [File: Justin Tallis/AFP]

‘Not safe to walk anywhere’

Others have responded differently.

Journalist Marianne Lehnis, in London, bought an alarm and spray after hearing of Nessa’s death.

The 33-year-old said lockdown created conditions for “the ugly side of society to come out”, a reality evidenced by increased levels of domestic violence.

“I generally take an Uber when coming home late but I was dismayed at how Sabina was killed at eight o’clock in the evening, which is not even late,” she said. “I realised something could happen any time and it’s best to be prepared. So this was the catalyst for getting a spray and alarm.”

Portuguese nursery teacher Paulita Gaspar, who lives close to the area where Everard was abducted, began carrying spray after she went missing. Now, after Nessa’s murder, she plans to cycle to work.

She told Al Jazeera: “Sarah was a friend of one of the mothers who brings her child to the nursery where I work – which is right where she disappeared. I passed that spot two hours before she was killed and I do this walk every day.

“Seeing the dogs, search teams and posters all around – you just can’t forget about it, especially on this walk. No one was walking that way, but I still had to take that route. The spray makes me feel safer. It’s better to have it and not use it than something happens and you have nothing.

“I can’t believe so soon after Sarah Everard this is happening again.”

So far this year, according to a group that tracks femicide, at least 109 women have been killed by men or in cases where a man is the main suspect.

“There are no safe spaces,” said Gaspar. “Where should we walk and where should we go? Should we lock ourselves at home? I feel it’s not safe to walk anywhere, so now, after what happened to Sabina, I’m looking at cycling to work instead. Maybe other women should consider the same.”

Everard’s case gripped the UK following her disappearance on March 3 [File: Metropolitan Police/AFP]
Source: Al Jazeera