Sabina Nessa’s murder and the grievability of women’s lives

Race and class continue to determine how much public attention is paid to cases of gender-based violence.

A person holds a placard during a vigil in memory of Sabina Nessa, a teacher who was murdered in Pegler Square, in London on September 24, 2021 [Reuters/Peter Nicholls]

Just six months after Sarah Everard was kidnapped, raped and murdered in the UK by an off-duty police officer, Gabriella Petito’s disappearance while travelling with her fiancé in the US and her now-confirmed death made international headlines. The Everard and Petito stories, though very different, have compounded the sense that gender-based violence threatens women everywhere.

Then, a week or so after the Petito case gained media visibility, yet another woman’s violent death was reported in the UK, that of Sabina Nessa, a 28-year-old teacher who was walking to a nearby pub from her home in South London.

The Nessa case has intensified local fear that women are unsafe on the streets of London. But this fear is a global one. It is nothing less than a reaction to the other pandemic – gender-based violence – that plagues our society, and that COVID-19 has merely exacerbated.

Visibility for some

Between March 2021 and September 2021, many women have gone missing or been murdered around the world. Yet we do not even know the names or the circumstances of most of them – even those in the UK or the US – because their stories have not made national or international headlines.

So why do some stories make the news while others do not?

Feminist media scholars have long pointed out that the race, class, and age of victims of gender-related violence play a crucial role in determining whether stories become newsworthy as well as how they are framed; namely, whether the victims are portrayed as “innocent” or, conversely, shamed and blamed.

The families of victims whose stories have gone unheeded know this only too well. In a recent Washington Post article, they decried the silence surrounding the deaths of their loved ones. They insist that Gabriella Petito’s case has received such widespread international media attention precisely because she was white, middle-class and photogenic. Whereas their loved ones’ disappearances – women of colour, poor women, trans women – have gone publicly unremarked, at best.

Grievable lives

This differential media coverage, however, merely reflects a wider societal truth: Some people’s lives are deemed more grievable and, consequently, their deaths generate a public outpouring of sorrow. Other lives, as feminist philosopher Judith Butler has taught us, are considered less worthy.

We live, she says, in a society in which the distribution of liveable lives is profoundly unequal, and only those who are recognised as “mattering” become grievable in the wider social and public sense.

This also helps explain the power of the hashtag #SayHerName, which began as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the number of Black women and girls who have been killed by law enforcement officers in the US. It is now being used in relation to Sabina Nessa’s murder.

This public naming of victims is not only about raising awareness or even recognising the uniqueness of each individual victim, each one with her own specific history, passions and dreams. Rather, by naming these women, we refuse to make them into a number or statistic while also – crucially – claiming each and every life as mattering, and thus as grievable.

Making the media accountable

While Sabina Nessa’s brutal murder has indeed made the national and even international news, social media commentators have noted that there was an initial lack of mainstream media attention. This is because unlike Everard and Petito, Nessa was a woman of colour.

In the murder’s wake, a storm began on Twitter, emphasising the difference between the Nessa case and the kind of media attention Everard’s case received from the get-go.

Tweets like one by well-known actress and TV presenter Jameela Jamil, which demanded that “the same energy and level of outrage” be seen in the Nessa case as in Everard’s, have made it more difficult for traditional news outlets to ignore the increasing fury arising from the lack of commensurate coverage in the UK.

Given that the mainstream UK media is now following the case daily, it seems that the interventions across cyberspace have had an impact. Indeed, they appear to have propelled a racial reckoning within traditional media outlets, one driven by the power of influencers and social media.

But hashtag movements do not emerge ex nihilo. After all, the past few years have also seen growing anger, frustration and public mobilisation around gendered and racist violence. Thus, one cannot really understand the impact of influencers and the hashtag movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName and #MeToo without the mass protests on the ground – from the Women’s March to the hundreds of demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

This potent combination has helped to open the floodgates of rage at the way in which gender and race continue to render certain lives – and too often Black and Brown women’s lives – less worthy and thus less grievable than others.

So we can begin with #SayHerName: Sabina Nessa.

But we cannot stop there.

We also need to hold the media accountable for its coverage of all lives in equal measure, eradicate this gender-based pandemic, and work tirelessly towards a world where each and every life is grievable precisely because it is liveable.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.