Zara Aleena was 35 and at the beginning of this month, she died in Ilford, West London after being attacked by a stranger as she walked home in the early hours of the morning. She was only ten minutes away from home when she was dragged into a driveway, robbed, assaulted and beaten. She was pronounced dead a couple of hours after she was found and a 29 year old man has been arrested for her murder. I don’t care if this post has not much of a Scottish connection but I do care very much about Zara’s death – yet another young woman attacked and killed by a stranger when they were out on a street.
A day or so after the death, her aunt Farah Naz gave an interview to Sky News. She explained how Zara “never saw herself as less than a man”; she believed she was “as equal, as strong, as powerful, as capable” and she had “never assumed that a man would see her as less than equal”. She outlined and paid tribute to her niece’s many positive qualities: she’d been fearless, a force to be reckoned with, modest about while also proud of her achievements, she was insightful, empathic and had strong community values. What struck a chord with me was the value she said that Zara had put on her independence and her strong belief that women should be able to walk the streets and feel safe.
This is what I believed in when I was young and I believe in it now. As a student in the west end and then a worker in the southside of Glasgow, I left places when I wanted to; when I felt that overwhelming desire to get home, I didn’t care how far I had to walk if I knew that my bed was waiting at the end of it. I wasn’t scared to be out alone at night – I felt sorry for those who were – and I only came to grief once.
Zara had been well aware of the recent murders of young women in London but had believed that she’d be safe because she was in her local community where everybody knew her. Her friend said she had decided to walk home because it was close by and because “nothing like that has ever happened here”. Her aunt spoke of how Zara had lived in four different houses and from the age of three when she was out playing on her tricycle, she was constantly being greeted by neighbours who knew her name.
She had a dreadful death, attacked at about 2.20am on what looks like a typical suburban street and was found not long after, barely alive; an ambulance arrived at 2.44am. I wondered if she’d been able to scream for help and if so, had anybody paid attention? One local resident on MailOnline was reported as saying: “My daughter said she heard a woman screaming at about 2am. There were a couple of screams but that was it (my italics). We live on a fairly busy road and there’s often people shouting at all times of day.” Another report said: “… her screams waking up nearby residents who frantically dialled 999”. Well, good as far as it goes but did any of them go outside to see what was happening with a view to, intervening?
I’ve been enraged about so-called bystander apathy since I read many, many years ago an article in a Reader’s Digest about a woman beaten and killed over the course of about half an hour outside a New York apartment block. Numerous folk had heard the screams but not one of them had done anything about it.
To give him his due for once, Andrew Marr spoke out vociferously on his LBC show on 1 July (clip now on YouTube) about what he called an “epidemic of male violence against women in London”; he said that Zara Aleena had “walked everywhere …. put her party shoes in a bag and donned her trainers … believed that a woman should be able to walk home”. He followed that up with an angry tirade against policing in London – or the lack of it.
There’s another clip on news sites of a police spokesman reading out a lengthy statement, including a line about woman not having to change their behaviour at any hour of the day or night – so maybe they’ve moved on just a tetch from their old victim-blaming stances.
Deniz Ugur of End Violence Against Women Coalition is quoted as challenging the criticism of Zara which had appeared: “Zara had every right to be safe walking home. We all have the right to be free from violence and the threat of it in every part of our lives, whether that’s in our homes, workplaces or out in public. No woman is ever responsible for their own abuse or assaults against them. What women are doing or wearing or where they choose to be is absolutely irrelevant … another form of victim blaming.” You can read more in Faima Bakar’s excellent HuffPost UK article here https://uk.news.yahoo.com/zara-aleena-walked-because-she-124535692.html
I’ve always thought that the more of us out on the streets there are the better it will be for everybody but we all need to look out for each other and be willing to get involved. I remember in 2008 the murder of Moira Jones in Queens Park in Glasgow, after being abducted from a nearby street. She and her killer were picked up on a CCTV camera from a passing bus but was any passenger looking out of the window, paying attention to what was going on? Even worse for her family to bear was the evidence of a woman who lived opposite the park hearing a loud scream, plus that of two different couples who heard screaming and crying from the park. Her mother wrote: “It was so hard to learn this, to know that Moira was screaming for help and in pain, but it was even more hellish to know that her screams were heard, understood and ignored.” (BBC News website, 30 August 2020 “The diary of my daughter’s murder: ‘We were in hell on earth'” by Paul O’Hare. Read this and weep.)
These people gave evidence at the trial and how I wish that we had in Scotland a law such as they have in France where if you know of any serious criminal offence which could still be prevented but you don’t inform the authorities, then you can be fined and imprisoned. At the very least, I hope they’ve never slept since.
Just a few days ago came a ruling from the Advertising Standards Authority on a Samsung advert which showed a young woman out running at 2am; it was judged to be neither harmful nor irresponsible. I was glad cause I thought the advert was positive. You can see it for example at https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/jul/20/samsung-cleared-by-uk-watchdog-over-ad-showing-woman-running-at-2am . Although Samsung ‘won’, they’re no longer going to show the ad in the UK which I’m sorry about.
An organisation called Reclaim These Streets had complained about the advert which confused me no end: just how do you reclaim streets by biding at home, hiding under the blankets? I wanted to try to understand their position and found that Anna Birley, a co-founder, had told ITV News: “I think that women should be able to go running regardless of what time of day or night it is. But the reality is that’s not the case, women don’t feel – and too often aren’t – safe out after dark.” She added that the “culture of misogyny needs to be tackled but adverts such as Samsung’s will not help to do so.” No, still don’t get it.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 1 in 2 women feel unsafe walking alone after dark either in a quiet street near their home or in a busy public place. How many of these women know that it’s men aged 16 to 24 who are much more likely to be attacked when they’re out and about? And that female victims are mainly assaulted by folk known to them?
Nothing will be of any comfort to the family and friends of Zara Aleena. But for the rest of us, let’s get out there or stay out there, watch out for one another and if we see bad things happening, have the courage to intervene. Let’s teach our young girls – and our boys – to scream and shout and to respond to each other’s calls or signals for help. Let’s build a better society in which we take responsibility for our own safety and that of the people nearby so that the streets belong to us all.