All night dancing, not marching: Reclaim the Night myth debunked

The International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women had almost everything: a bomb scare, stage invaders, hours of gruelling testimony, great music, claims of masturbation lessons, and a stand-off with the world's media. Everything, that is, except the thing for which this 1976 meeting in Brussels' Palais des Congres is so often remembered.
By · 19 Oct 2013
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19 Oct 2013
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The International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women had almost everything: a bomb scare, stage invaders, hours of gruelling testimony, great music, claims of masturbation lessons, and a stand-off with the world's media. Everything, that is, except the thing for which this 1976 meeting in Brussels' Palais des Congres is so often remembered.

Thirty-seven years later, the chief organiser says that contrary to popular belief, the tribunal did not hold a Reclaim the Night march through the streets of the Belgian capital to oppose violence against women - an initiative that has since spread around the world and continues in Melbourne tonight with a demonstration along Sydney Road in Brunswick.

"It has become part of history but it's incorrect," says Dr Diana Russell, 74, one of the key instigators of the tribunal and now professor emerita of sociology and women's studies at Mills College in California. "I hate to destroy the myth because I kind of like it, but we actually danced every night" - to the Flying Lesbians, a seven-piece rock band from Germany.

In March 1976, about 2000 women from 40 countries met in Brussels to respond to what some saw as the patriarchal idea of International Women's Year, celebrated by the United Nations in 1975.

A letter from Simone de Beauvoir, read at the start of the five-day event, said that whereas the women's year had been about trying to integrate women into a world ruled by men, the tribunal would work to "denounce the oppression to which women are subjected in this society".

Inspired by the tribunal on American war crimes in Vietnam, convened without any legal powers by philosophers Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre, the organisers chose to hear testimony from women individually.

Subjects included forced motherhood, crimes perpetrated by the medical profession, economic crime (including wage disparities), violence against women, and their objectification through pornography.

"All man-made forms of women's oppression were seen as crimes," Russell wrote in a book summarising the event. "We were all our own judges."

However, some women complained the testimonial format left little time to consider causes and remedies.

"It was sort of dead in the beginning with us calling people up to the microphone," admits Russell, who was on the committee. "But once the overthrow was effected it become so magnetic, so alive."

The "overthrow" followed a move by one moderator to order a speaker's microphone turned off, which in turn triggered anarchy. Speakers began running overtime and interjections multiplied. "I remember three Japanese women coming up and saying, 'When can we testify?' And I said, 'I don't know'," Russell recalls.

The organising committee was accused of having perpetrated a "fascist act" by muting the speaker. "We have been mute all our lives," a Swiss woman said.

Some participants wanted to graffiti the patriarchal paintings on the walls. Others met in corridors until they were moved on for posing a fire risk. Childcare was non-existent, and simultaneous translation services in five languages quickly broke down amid passionate arguments. Women conducting self-examinations led some of the Palais staff to complain that participants were teaching each other how to masturbate.

On one occasion the hall was briefly evacuated after a bomb threat. When the group returned, about 150 lesbians invaded the stage seeking greater recognition of their plight ahead of their prearranged timeslot.

Amid the turmoil, testimonies continued. A French woman told of being gang raped only to be looked at by police, doctors and judges as if she was no longer a person. "The law does not understand why a raped woman does not show a superhuman resistance and an Olympian calm," she said, "both during the rape and afterwards."

An Australian woman tried to explain the concept of "mateship" to her international audience by reference to bushrangers, soldiers and footballers. "Violence performed by groups of men, or at least sanctioned by the group, is the historical heritage that provides Australian men with their mystical feelings about each other and their feeling of real power," she said.

Russell used her own testimony to explain the now widely used notion of femicide - the killing of females by males because of their gender. "I was bringing out a new word for misogynist murder of women," Russell says.

Newsrooms across the world dispatched correspondents to cover the event, though only female reporters were allowed to hear the testimonies.

"The first question from a Time spokesman was, 'What are the women wearing?"' Russell wrote. "The second, 'Where are they staying?"'

Photographers roamed the corridors outside the main hall disturbing some participants. After fierce debate it was decided to ban male reporters from the daily press conference as well. The International Press Association in Belgium announced it "energetically deplores the discriminating and sexist decision".

"Such a narrow-minded attitude must be totally opposed by everyone who believes in a free and democratic press, as well as by everyone who is in favour of equality between men and women."

Russell still thinks excluding male journalists was the right move. "Women coming together without men is a completely different dynamic," she says. Today, "feminism has become integrated into other movements and it has lost a lot".

She considers the tribunal a success. Women's refuges were funded in Belgium and Germany. An account of brutal childbirth techniques in Italy was later investigated and corroborated by local media. And other initiatives, including Reclaim the Night marches, began to appear around the world.

Asked why she let the mistruth about a candlelit march through the streets of Brussels take root, Russell says: "I decided to just let it go, people seemed to be certain. It's hard to prove something didn't happen." Though if it had, she says, she would have known about it.

Russell says it was not until 1977 that she took part in one of the first Reclaim the Night marches - also known as Take Back the Night - through San Francisco's red-light district.

Tonight, hundreds of people are expected to walk north up Sydney Road as part of Melbourne's 35th Reclaim the Night. Last year, a month after the rape and murder of Jill Meagher, about 5000 men and women took part.

Co-organiser Natalie Pestana says the aim is to "protest harassment and violence against women, and make a unified call for desperately needed funding for support services". She cited recent spending cuts to Legal Aid, community legal centres, a Coroner's Court research unit that investigates domestic violence, and community programs, such as Bsafe, which provides alarms for women and children at risk.

Last year a compromise was reached to allow men to participate at the back of the march, while creating a women-only space at the front. "Feedback from a lot of women was they wanted their male partners to march with them, but we also had traditionalists who stridently believe in maintaining women's only space," Pestana said. "We felt this was a nice homage to tradition, whilst opening up Reclaim the Night to more people who otherwise wouldn't necessarily attend (but want to support us)."

The Melbourne march will begin with speeches outside Brunswick Town Hall at 7pm.
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