As we mourn the London schoolteacher, women, particularly South Asian women, are coming together to speak out against gendered violence
As I sat on the train, heading to a place I had never been before, to mourn the loss of a young woman I had never met before, I looked around. I wondered who else looked like they were making the same journey, on a chilly Friday, to a south-east London vigil for murdered schoolteacher Sabina Nessa, to say her name.
A student in a denim jacket came up to me. Like me, she said she felt scared of walking somewhere new alone. We got off the train at Kidbrooke station, near Blackheath, and ended up walking together, joining the stream of mourners. Many held handmade signs, as candles and floral tributes piled up on every surface.
At the centre of Pegler Square, where Sabina Nessa was heading to meet a friend the previous Friday, 17 September, was an image of the 28-year-old in her graduation gown surrounded with fairy lights. They were the kind of decorations you would normally see at an Asian wedding, not a memorial.
Sabina, a Year One teacher in a local primary school, was on a five-minute walk between leaving her home and meeting a friend in Kidbrooke, south-east London when she went missing. Her body was discovered 24 hours later by a dog walker, hidden under a pile of leaves, just yards from a busy pathway in Cator Park, a popular spot for local families. This week, a 36-year-old man was charged with Sabina’s murder, which he denies.
The killing has left the close-knit, multi-cultural community in shock, but also determined to stand up for Sabina and to take a stand against gendered violence.
“I wanted to show her life matters”
Among the hundreds gathered last Friday was local resident, Huma Sabir, who was at the vigil with her daughter.
“Although I didn’t know her, we go down the same path that Sabina used every day and sometimes I think, maybe I walked past her. The area is so beautiful. Who knew it would take lives like this,” Huma told me.
“We wanted to show that we are with her family in this difficult time. It could have been me or anyone. We are not safe in this area anymore. It is very emotional.”
For 26-year-old Ayesha Masud from Tooting, Sabina’s death hit close to home. “I have cousins who are teachers and looking at the photo of her felt like looking at the photos their mums have on the mantelpiece,” she said. “It felt like nobody was speaking for her so we had to speak for her.”
“The irony was, I was in two minds about [coming] because I didn’t know the area and I was nervous about getting home safely, but people on local Facebook groups were talking about going so we could arrange to go together.”
A book of condolence was opened on Saturday in the nearby OneSpace community centre, near to where Sabina’s body was found, and a walk in her memory has been organised by the community for 1 October.
Among the speakers at the vigil was Sabina’s younger sister, Jebina Yasmin Islam. Between sobs, Jebina remembered her sibling, saying: “We have lost an amazing, caring, beautiful sister who left this world far too early. She didn’t reach her 29th birthday next month.
“Sabina loved her family. We have lost a sister, my parents have lost their daughter and my girls have lost such a brilliant, loving and caring auntie who dearly loved them.
“Words cannot describe how we are feeling. It feels like we are stuck in a bad dream and can’t get out of it.”
For the vigil’s organiser, Annie Gibbs, vice-chair of the Kidbrooke Forum Community Group, the memorial was intended both as a sign of unity and support for the family, and also as show of solidarity against violence against women and girls.
“I wanted to show her life matters, her family matters,” said Annie. “I cannot begin to imagine what they must be going through.
“We want people to respect and honour her life and make sure that in doing so, we send a loud and clear message that we are a united community, and this violent act isn’t going to divide us.”
A national crisis
Just six months ago, amid COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, the death of Sarah Everard sparked mass protests and drew renewed attention to violence against women on Britain’s streets. For both Sarah and Sabina, we need to remember the reason why they were murdered is because they were women.
Since Sarah’s murder by a police officer in Clapham in March, 77 women in the UK have lost their lives to suspected gendered violence. In Sabina’s case, there is also anger among South Asian communities who feel ethnicity played into a perceived lack of coverage around her death.
“Many people in the Bangladeshi community felt that the media coverage was very slow and also felt that Bangladeshi women’s voices were going unheard when they should have been at the centre of these conversations,” says Dr Halima Begum, CEO of the Runnymede Trust who, like Sabina, is of Bangladeshi heritage.
In the wake of Sabina’s death, this frustration manifested in a wave of protest on social media using the hashtag #sayhername. London-based blogger Katrina Mirpuri was among those who joined in, with her Instagram posts on Sabina receiving half a million likes.
“Nobody was discussing it, and the public had zero awareness about the fact that there was an ongoing police appeal, even though everyone knows the first 48 hours is crucial in getting evidence so [the hashtag] was first and foremost so we could find Sabina’s killer.
“When women of colour, when they go missing, they are often overlooked by the media and it made me feel, if something happened to me, would I be overlooked? People accused me of being racist and bringing race and politics into it but it wasn’t about that, it was about Sabina.”
Mirpuri’s comments aren’t quite accurate; timelines show that national newspapers did report on Sabina’s death almost as soon as it was made public knowledge by police. And unlike in Sarah Everard’s case, Sabina was never reported as a missing person, which may have changed the reporting style. But the misconceptions surrounding this case, and the narratives of comparison that have sprung up, show the extent of mistrust in the police and media at accurately reporting on violence against women of colour.
Sabina’s death comes in the wake of the Conservative government’s report on violence against women and girls, which featured a number of recommendations including better support services for minority communities. However, many critics felt the report did not go far enough towards tackling the issue and let down women of colour.
“We need culturally sensitive services, because, for example, in the South Asian community, there is a stigma around issues such as domestic violence and sexual assault,” says Halima, who points to low rape-conviction rates as a reason why some women in the community are reluctant to report. “Victim support is the minimum we need. It is a wider issue of police intervention and a much needed overhaul of the criminal justice system.”
As I stood in Peglar Square, my face warmed by the last rays of the setting sun, tears running down my cheeks during the one-minute silence, I wondered how many of the crowd were mourning not just for Sabina, but for ourselves and loved ones who had been touched by gendered violence in some way. I was struck by how we were creating a community there in the square, through our shared grief, and how something small, but quite beautiful and poignant, was emerging from the tragedy.
After we parted ways, giving each other hugs, swapping numbers and promising to meet for coffee some time, we told each other to “text me when you get home,” like we do when we say goodbye to all our friends. Then I changed into my trainers and calculated in my head the safest route from the station. Because the five-minute walk home is always the scariest.