‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.’ (Margaret Atwood)
On the night of 26th June 2022, Zara Aleena, 35 years old, is walking home along a main road in Ilford, East London. She is brutally attacked by a man and so viciously beaten, Zara later dies in hospital of multiple serious injuries. Chillingly, after a post-mortem, the police reveal no evidence was found of a weapon being used to inflict the injuries. Intensifying the horror of her death and ominously depicting the hatred and savagery meted out to her by the assailant. She wasn’t even known to him. There was no backstory of hostility, feuding or enmity to provide cause or explanation for his attack. He killed her because she was a woman.
The police called it an ‘opportunistic stranger attack.’ Underlining in blood-red lines, the pervasive, invisible danger hanging over all women. Zara Aleena had been out with friends that night, and being a woman who liked walking, (cited as a fast walker by her friends), Zara had decided to walk home rather than take a taxi. And why shouldn’t she? Her decision wouldn’t be harming anyone. She was an adult, a lawful citizen on her way home. Enjoying the cool air on her face, the meditative rhythm of her steps, the background hum of passing cars.
Jordan McSweeney, 29 years old, has been arrested and charged. Not just with her murder but also with attempted rape. A double violation; a man wreaking havoc on a woman, playing out the evil idea that men have the right to touch, beat, invade and destroy a woman, to commit trespass, cross a sacred line. We’re all born with a fundamental right needing no justification, explanation or repetition: no woman, man or child should have to bear a touch they don’t consent to.
The fact of being human embodies the value of being human. Women are no less human than men. If this value is degraded for women, by the same token it becomes degraded for men, immediately rendering society unequal and unstable. This human value is a civilisational value. It must be held precious, guarded and protected; its traducement leads to violence against individuals and war amongst nations, as we’ve seen through history and as we see on our globe today.
Being human also means to have empathy, to love and to mourn. We can’t begin to imagine the suffering of Zara Aleena’s family, but we can read their poignant tribute, and agree with the prominence and pairing of ‘…beloved human…’ and ‘She was our love in human form.’
The family’s tribute to Zara Aleena:
Zara, 35, a beloved human, child, niece, cousin, granddaughter, friend to all, she was a joy to all of us.
She was a carer for her mother, and her grandmother. Caring for others came so naturally to her. Zara was friendly, she was everybody’s friend. She was everybody’s daughter, everybody’s niece, everybody’s sister, everybody’s cousin. She was pure of heart.
She was a joy to all of us, her sparkling eyes and the curly, jet-black hair. Her glorious laughter and her sweet, smiling voice. Her tiny frame embodied a passionate spirit and indomitable energy.
Zara was brought up by the whole of our family. She was our love in human form. At the age of five she said she was going to be a lawyer. Shrieking with joy when she spotted the birds as a child – she would giggle and make us laugh. She was always the bigger person in any situation.
She was authentic and refused to try and impress anyone but she impressed us. She was the rock of our family. Zara was stoic and held it all together and never complained. She glued our community together.
“Nobody worked harder than Zara” is what we heard from all who knew her. Zara was happy and at a point in her life when her joy was radiating and blossoming. She was ready to make a family of her own.
Her sense of justice and fairness led her to a life of giving and caring for others – supporting refugees fleeing violence, giving voice to those who had less power. She had that special habit of noticing others in need and always put their needs on her agenda. A carefree spirit, with the most caring heart.
Zara was happy and at a point in her life that she had worked hard for, she had completed her Legal Practice Course so that she could practise as a solicitor. She only recently started working for the Crown Prosecution Service, to complete her two-year work placement in order to become a fully qualified solicitor. She was fierce: she didn’t just survive, she thrived.
She walked everywhere. She put her party shoes in a bag and donned her trainers. She walked. Zara believed that a woman should be able to walk home. Now, her dreams of a family are shattered, her future brutally taken.
We all know women should be safe on our streets. She was in the heart of her community, 10 minutes from home.
We all need to be talking about what happened to OUR ZARA, we all need to be talking about this tragedy.
These last few days have been shocking and unimaginable.
In the moment of this tragedy, we extend our deepest sympathy and love to the families of Bibaa Henry; Nicole Smallman; Sarah Everard; Sabina Nessa; Ashling Murphy and many more women.
We must PREVENT and STOP violence against women and girls.
Our loss is irreparable and the void feels insurmountable but the warmth and kindness that our community has shown is testament to the power of Zara’s spirit. Her life has been stolen from us. She has been stolen from us all.
REST IN POWER ZARA NATASHA ALEENA.”
In an act of affinity and grace, in the midst of their pain, Zara’s family remember the families of other women whose lives have been violently taken, mentioning five women by name but noting there are many others. As a way of honouring them, I’m going to write briefly about each woman they’ve named, whilst also noting the many others who’ve been violently killed on our streets and public places.
Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman
The story of the murder of sisters Bibaa Henry (46) and Nicole Smallman (27) piles myth, murder, racism and police disgrace upon tragedy. The two women were brutally killed in a London park by Danyal Hussein in a frenzied knife attack. Victims not only of a man’s violence but dehumanised as a ‘sacrifice’, Hussein having made a ‘contract’ with a ‘demon’ to sacrifice women in return for winning the lottery. An idea harking back to the oldest myths of sacrifice, particularly female sacrifice: Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides is about the sacrificing of young Iphigenia by her father Agamemnon to appease the goddess Artemis, into releasing the winds she’s withholding and allow the Greek fleet to sail against Troy. More recently, in the hugely popular Game of Thrones series, Shireen Baratheon is sacrificed by her father so that he can pursue his quest for power.
Danyal Hussein was wounded in his attack on the sisters, as Nicole Smallman tried to fight back. After killing them, Hussein dragged their bodies into a wooded area. In a second twist the Metropolitan Police failed to prioritise the case, only initiating their searches 12 hours after the women had been reported missing. Dal Babu, a former Chief Superintendent in the Metropolitan Police, in an interview on Sky News commented “Race certainly played a part in it,” … “People will be asking this question: If this had been a white woman, 46 years old, celebrating her birthday with no history of going missing, and the family saying they were concerned, action would be taken much more quickly.”
In a 3rd twist, the two (male) constables, Deniz Jaffer and Jamie Lewis, assigned to guard the crime scene and stationed outside the cordon, decided to amuse themselves. Described as a ‘sacrilegious act,’ by the sisters’ family, the two constables betrayed their professional obligations, entered the crime scene, took photographs of the sisters and shared them on WhatsApp with other police officers and friends. They were later jailed for 2 years and 9 months, the judge commenting: “… they took and shared the photographs for what could only have been some sort of cheap thrill, kudos, a kick or bragging rights”, and had undermined trust in policing.
On a spring day in March 2021, Sarah Everard was also walking home, about 9.30 in the evening, having gone to a friend’s house for dinner. Unknown to her a man was driving around looking for a female victim. The man was a serving police officer. At some point he targeted her. Getting out of his car, he stopped her, accused her of having broken Covid regulations, told her he was arresting her, put handcuffs on her, bundled her into his car, strapped her in so she couldn’t free herself and drove off. A couple saw the incident, but assumed it was a legitimate arrest. Sarah Everard had just been kidnapped. He drove her into a wooded area, raped her, strangled her, burnt her body, put the remains in rubbish bags and dumped them in a pond.
In her impact statement Sarah’s mother said, “Sarah died in horrendous circumstances. I am tormented at the thought of what she endured…. “I play it out in my mind. I go through the terrible sequence of events. I wonder when she realised she was in mortal danger; I wonder what her murderer said to her. When he strangled her, for how long was she conscious, knowing she would die?…“It is torture to think of it. Sarah was handcuffed, unable to defend herself and there was no one to rescue her. She spent her last hours on this earth with the very worst of humanity… In the evenings, at the time she was abducted, I let out a silent scream: “Don’t get in the car, Sarah. Don’t believe him. Run!”
Early in the evening in September 2021, a young schoolteacher, Sabina Nessa was walking through a park, on her way to meet a friend. She never made it out of the park. A man, Koci Selamaj, had driven into London, intending to attack a random woman because he’d been rejected by his estranged wife.
Selamaj saw Sabina walking through the park, checked that she was alone, and attacked. He hit her 34 times with a metal traffic triangle (the one clue which would later lead to his arrest), carried her off unconscious, strangled her, covered her body with grass and left.
Sabina’s body lay alone, till it was discovered the following day by a dog walker.
After his arrest Selamaj maintained silence for a long period. On the day of sentencing, he refused to come to court, leaving Sabina’s heart-broken family facing an empty dock for their victim impact statements.
Shortly after finishing work at 3pm, in Tullamore on January 12, 2022, Ashling Murphy, an Irish primary school teacher and traditional Irish musician, went for a jog on Fiona’s Way, a canal walkway, named after missing woman Fiona Pender. Ashling was violently assaulted by Jozef Puska, 31. It’s believed Ashling used her keys in a desperate attempt to fight back but was strangled to death.
Vigils have been held across Ireland and the world to remember Murphy, and to call for a change in tackling gender-based violence.
Ashling was a member of Ballyboy Comhaltas (dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Irish traditional music), where she taught younger members. In her honour, Comhaltas has set up three scholarships, each for €2,000. The first is to support individual artists working to develop participation and practice in traditional arts, while the second will be focused on the music education of young people. The third will be for research on an area in the Irish traditional arts.
I understand there are no short or quick answers to the savagery of violence against women, but whatever is possible should be done, whatever ideas can be changed should be changed. Young men should be taught from the earliest age there’s no reason, no justification, no scenario, when a man has the right to use violence against a woman. We also need to look at the institutions of large, organised religions which are run entirely by men, thereby giving out a message that women are of lower worth. In 2017, I wrote a blog post called Women, Reclaim your Gods in which I quoted from a speech by President Carter to the World Parliament of Religions. I make no apology for repeating it here:
“This view that the Almighty considers women to be inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or tradition. Its influence does not stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue, or temple. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths, creating an environment in which violations against women are justified.”
“The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.
“Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions.”
“The belief that women are inferior human beings in the eyes of God, gives excuses to the brutal husband who beats his wife, the soldier who rapes a woman, the employer who has a lower pay scale for women employees, or parents who decide to abort a female embryo.”
The recent decision of the Supreme Court in the US, in overturning Roe V Wade is exactly the kind of harmful, authoritarian, interpretation of religious views that President Carter is talking about. A view in which women are the chattels, their bodies subject to the will of others; a view in which it’s alright to pass laws which will lead to women being trapped by the actions of a rapist, a violent husband or a medical issue. As happened to Savita Halappanavar, a dentist from India who’d been living in Ireland, was denied an abortion, and died of septicaemia.
Women are half the world. Full human beings with their value and dignity. If women suffer, the world suffers.