On March 8, 2016, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, I was asked to give a speech about safety at a public demonstration in Turku. The event was organized by individual activists together with KJAR (the System of Free Women Society of East Kurdistan). The theme was Take Back the Night, which has been a rallying point for different feminist demonstrations in Turku during the last three years. In 2016, the theme Take Back the Night was motivated by a desire to reclaim public space from fascist and nationalist groups that had roamed in public spaces in the city at night. They claim that their motive is to protect Finnish white women who are under threat of rape and physical violence by migrant men. These groups have practiced violence and hatred towards women, racialized people, trans* people and other marginalized groups. Like in all nationalist projects, women’s bodies are being used as arguments for racist values. So, the demonstration was against racism, misogyny and transphobia which have become increasingly visible in the public space. Feminist groups and anti-racist groups gathered to reclaim the night and defined what safety is and how our surroundings should be.
During the demonstration, KJAR demanded that the Kurdish activist Zeineb Calalian be freed from Iranian prison where she has been imprisoned and tortured for nine years. There was also a demand for all other political prisoners to be freed. Kurdish Women’s Protection Units’ (YPJ) representative talked about women’s revolution in Rojava, northern Syria. The YPJ female soldiers’ ideology is based on socialist values and a feminist view of women as equal to men, which they see as a revolution on the road to real socialism and equality. The Kurdish women crush all the ideas that the world has about women. They are able to fight for their right to exist and their feminist ideals.
As a Black woman from Southern Africa, born and grew up in Zimbabwe, emigrated to South Africa, and then emigrated to Finland because of marriage, a mother, a wife and a professional in my own right, I asked: do I have a right to walk freely in the streets of Turku? My answer is yes. Do I feel safe doing that? My answer is no. Why? There are many incidences, but I choose to share one that happened to me in the market square (Kauppatori).
On 14 January 2016, I was walking from work and I passed by a man standing near a wall who seemed to be enjoying his smoke. He suddenly shouted at me “hey Negro, what is it like to be a Negro in Turku?” Was this an immigrant black, Muslim man, or any other immigrant? No, it was a white Finnish man, very articulate in English and not old. I ignored him, but he followed me, walking by my side asking the same question. As I arrived at a traffic light, he kept asking and he was now getting agitated and started speaking to me in Finnish. My first instinct was to run even though the pedestrian traffic sign was red. Then I realized doing that is more dangerous because a car would run me over. I became angry and faced the man and looked him straight in the eyes. We locked eyes for some time then he just turned away and went back. As he walked away, I became more afraid and angry at the same time.
Why did I get angry and afraid? The term Negro has a violent origin with its history of denying black people from Africa their humanity (spirituality, physical human attributes, morality, culture, and religion) and human dignity to give legitimacy to slavery. With his tone and attitude, the man seemed to know what it meant. So I was also afraid because, I knew that as this man stripped me of my humanity, and saw me as a Negro with no rights, that meant that he has the right to harass and harm me.
Everyday racism induces anxiety and stress for those targeted: I anticipate and cope with direct and indirect discriminations and racializations in everyday interactions because of my skin color. I go out every single day with a certain fear and expectation of being attacked, physically and/or verbally. This is hard to imagine for those who are not the targets of racism. For this reason, “migrant health” as conceived by white researchers and policy makers may not always include a problematization of or concern for the mental stress that migrants suffer as a result of racism. What are racism’s implications and effects to its victim’s mental and overall health and well-being? What is the public health cost of racism? To what extent, if any, are these questions being asked and looked into?
Racial harassment in the streets, such as the one I encountered, has the effect of intimidating and discouraging women like me from going out. A walk is not a peaceful, carefree or leisurely walk anymore when one has to be hyper-aware of one’s surroundings, and to be constantly on the look-out for one’s self. Who would like to put one’s self in such a state of vigilance, would anyone look forward to being picked on and humiliated every time one goes out the door?
But, I refuse to be cowered and constrained because of my race, to be domesticated in the name of safety and protection, to be an object of racialized protection. I would rather push for a debate on what safety means in a democratic state. What is a democratic state? Everyday racism, in the form of street harassment, is about the struggle for and right to public space – who is allowed to be visible in and use/occupy certain spaces. Who belongs and does not belong in a nation-state? When the State looks over the fact that neo-Nazi and fascist groups are becoming more dominant and aggressive; not only in marking, but also in enforcing national boundaries and territories through sexist and racist discourses and violent acts towards racialized others and their “Finnish supporters”; and when the State’s soft approach directly or indirectly encourages the rise of these groups, whose interests and safety is it protecting?
Mkwesha is a researcher at Åbo Akademi university.