Sabina Nessa’s murder and the sadness of women’s lives

Just six months after Sarah Everard was kidnapped, raped and murdered in the UK by a police officer on leave, Gabriella Petito’s disappearance while traveling with her fiance in the US and her now confirmed death have made headlines international newspapers. The stories of Everard and Petito, although very different, have compounded the feeling that gender-based violence threatens women everywhere.

Then, about a week after the Petito case gained media exposure, the violent death of another woman was reported in the UK, that of Sabina Nessa, a 28-year-old teacher who was walking to a school. nearby pub from his home in South London. .

The Nessa case has heightened local fears that women are not safe on the streets of London. But this fear is global. It is nothing less than a reaction to the other pandemic – gender-based violence – that is rampant in our society, and which COVID-19 has only exacerbated.

Visibility for some

Between March 2021 and September 2021, many women have disappeared or been murdered around the world. Yet we don’t even know the names or circumstances of most of them – even those in the UK or the US – because their stories did not make national or international headlines.

So why do some stories make the news while others don’t?

Feminist media scholars have long emphasized that the race, class and age of victims of gender-based violence play a crucial role in determining whether stories become newsworthy and how they are presented; namely, whether the victims are presented as “innocent” or, on the contrary, ashamed and blamed.

The families of the victims whose stories have gone unheeded know this all too well. In a recent Washington Post item, they decried the silence surrounding the death of their loved ones. They insist that Gabriella Petito’s case received such international media attention precisely because she was white, middle class and photogenic. While the disappearances of loved ones – women of color, poor women, trans women – have at best gone unnoticed publicly.

Lives in mourning

This differential media coverage, however, only reflects a larger societal truth: Some people’s lives are seen as more painful and, as a result, their deaths generate a wave of public sadness. Other lives, as feminist philosopher Judith Butler taught us, are seen as less worthy.

We live, she says, in a society in which the distribution of livable lives is profoundly unequal, and only those who are recognized as “important” can be grieved in the broader social and public sense.

It also helps explain the power of the #SayHerName hashtag, which began as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the number of black women and girls who have been killed by law enforcement officers in the United States. It is now used in connection with the murder of Sabina Nessa.

This public nomination of victims is not just aimed at raising awareness or even recognizing the uniqueness of each victim, each with their own story, passions and dreams. Instead, by naming these women, we refuse to make them a number or statistic while asserting – crucially – that every life is important and therefore subject to mourning.

Empower the media

While the brutal murder of Sabina Nessa indeed made national and even international news, social media commentators noted that there was an initial lack of attention from mainstream media. Indeed, unlike Everard and Petito, Nessa was a woman of color.

In the wake of the murder, a storm started on Twitter highlighting the difference between the Nessa case and the kind of media attention the Everard case received from the start.

Tweets like that of well-known actress and TV presenter Jameela Jamil, which demanded that “the same energy and level of outrage” be seen in the Nessa case as in the Everard case, made it more difficult for mainstream media to ignore the growing fury over the lack of proportional coverage in the UK.

With the UK mainstream media now following the case on a daily basis, it appears that the cyberspace interventions have had an impact. Indeed, they seem to have propelled a racial calculation within mainstream media, driven by the power of influencers and social media.

But hashtag movements do not emerge from scratch. After all, recent years have also seen an increase in anger, frustration and public mobilization around gender-based and racist violence. So, one cannot really understand the impact of influencers and hashtag movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName and #MeToo without the mass protests on the ground – from the Women’s March to the hundreds of protests following the murder. by George Floyd.

This powerful combination has helped open the floodgates of rage at how gender and race continue to make some lives – and all too often those of black and brunette women – less worthy and therefore less distressing than others.

So we can start with #SayHerName: Sabina Nessa.

But we can’t stop there.

We must also hold the media accountable for their coverage of all lives in equal measure, eradicate this gender-based pandemic, and work tirelessly for a world where every life is grieved precisely because it is liveable.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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