What can an inquiry into the Sarah Everard murder possibly achieve? It won’t make women feel any safer

Women’s anger is growing, daily and steadily, as we recognise just how misunderstood our lives are by those who hold the power to make a difference

Hannah Fearn
Wednesday 06 October 2021 16:38
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Priti Patel announces inquiry into Sarah Everard murder

To be fair to Priti Patel – now there’s a sentence I never imagined writing – what option did she have? An official inquiry into how a man as depraved as Wayne Couzens was able to infiltrate the Metropolitan Police and use his power to kidnap, rape and murder Sarah Everard, was an inevitability. We do need to know how a man who had been reported for indecent exposure and was nicknamed “the rapist” by his colleagues retained his job long enough to abuse that position in the most extreme and despicable way. On the other hand, you could save some money and ask a woman – any woman – and you’ll get the same answers.

The Conservative Party must be thanking the heavens for its luck in having a female home secretary in post to make the announcement. Good job it didn’t have to rely on its justice secretary, Dominic Raab, who this morning told the BBC he thought that misogyny was wrong – even if it was conducted by a woman against a man.

Let’s give Raab the benefit of the doubt (again, not a sentence I ever imagined writing) and assume he’s muddling up misandry and misogyny. It was early and there had been drinks at Manchester’s Midland Hotel last night. Yet the two forms of hatred – misandry and misogyny – are not equivalent. How could they be, when misogyny is rooted in centuries of oppression and discrimination and misandry is arguably a response to being the victim of that oppression and discrimination; a response to trying to live a productive and positive life in a culture that apparently needs an official inquiry to tell us that a man who exposes himself to women isn’t a suitable candidate for law enforcement.

Women’s anger is growing, daily and steadily, as we recognise just how misunderstood our lives are by those who hold the power to make a difference. Raab has shown himself to be tone deaf on the problem of misogyny and how it destroys women’s chances: at work, in family life, across our society.

Cressida Dick did the same when she suggested women resist arrest and wave down a bus to help if they suspect a rogue police officer of attempting to abuse them – a move which could have devastating, life altering, possibly fatal, consequences, particularly for women of colour.

And so did Lindsay Hoyle, the speaker of the House of Commons, when he demanded action to understand why a man like Couzens had been able to patrol parliament. It is of course right that police on the parliamentary estate face particular scrutiny during their recruitment. Nobody is objecting to that. But listen to the way it sounds. When Hoyle makes demands for exceptionalism in the male-dominated, frequently sexist arena of politics – where Couzens posed no specific greater risk – he sounds utterly blind to how threatened and objectified women often feel in their own workplaces, how they are attacked and abused online, and how unsafe they have always known they are while they walk the streets.

Every official statement, from every part of this country’s establishment, on the death of Sarah Everard has displayed this same lack of empathy. It is now bordering on the grotesque. What can any new official inquiry – inevitable and necessary though it is – tell women that they don’t already know? Can any “lessons be learned”, or learned anew, when the root of the problem is not a police force recruitment programme, or a few “rotten apples”? Not while the whole barrel is putrid.

The police, in their work upholding the rule of law, do two things: they reflect the culture of the country they secure, and they police it with the consent of the people. The culture inside the police – the sordid WhatsApp group chats, the sharing of explicit and unauthorised images, the “locker room” talk between men at work – is by no means exclusive to the Met (Police Scotland has its own “sexist, horrific” boys’ club culture, we learn today). Or even to the police.

We desire that the force upholds a more mature and exemplary standard, but how do you make that happen when the social pressures that encourage it are endemic? Many of the men who tweeted their heartfelt sympathy for the family of Sarah Everard will be making their own jokes at a woman’s expense next week. Banter. Bit of a laugh with the lads. “I don’t mean anything by it.” Sorry men, but how do we know whether you do or don’t?

As for consent, we have a problem with the word. How loaded the term feels in this context, when a woman was first raped and then murdered by a man to whom she was supposed to have granted her shared consent as a police officer. The absence of a culture of consent allows the crimes of indecent exposure to be ignored. Sexual abuse without any form of touch or penetration is still abuse. It is misogynistic abuse, not about flirtation but about the exertion of power. Women do not, we cannot, consent to being policed like this.

So where does an inquiry into the case of Wayne Couzens’ destruction of the life of Sarah Everard begin and end? If it’s limited to the events of this one case, it’s a futile exercise. Cast the net wider and what can it say that can make any difference at all? Somewhere inside the soul of Boris Johnson, there must be an understanding of this conundrum; the prime minister has declared that there’s no point in making misogyny a hate crime. He knows that when too few men (and many women) accept that misogyny exists – or, as Dominic Raab kindly demonstrated, even understand its definition – we’re simply not in a position to tackle the problem.

And so we are left with Priti Patel’s inquiry. There’s no harm in implementing the recommendations that will likely follow, including better vetting of the backgrounds and attitudes of prospective and serving police officers. But it won’t alleviate the fear which controls women’s lives. They know it won’t prevent the next misogynistic abuser. They know it won’t save the next victim of male violence against women. And they know it’s chance alone that keeps them safe.

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