Cameras flash rapidly, fixated on one spot of the Baftas red carpet – but the staccato-paced shooting isn’t for a Hollywood actress, it’s for feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut. Dressed in black, on their backs with arms interlinked, the sisters deliver their message: “Time’s Up, Theresa!”, a cry aimed at the British prime minister’s woeful response to the UK’s grave domestic violence problem. Moving through this world as a survivor is hard, but Sisters Uncut are the rebel yell for the silenced, a vital platform for women to collectively resist. Raging with radical acts since 2014, the UK-wide organisation is made up of regional groups of women and non-binary people, from Bristol’s student-led movement to an unlikely cell of retirees in rural Wales. Together, they lead a fight against domestic, sexual, and state violence, holding the most powerful to account for political action – or inaction – that kills. Right now, their crosshairs are aimed at Theresa May’s incoming domestic violence and abuse bill, which the group says will criminalise survivors, and smokescreen devastating cuts to specialist services.
“They have to be thankful for the crumbs that they get. But we don’t have to ask so nicely,” says L, one of five group members meeting today from different London Sisters branches (the group don’t use their real names). To date, not asking nicely has meant occupying Holloway prison to reclaim it as a local community space last summer, and reopening a Doncaster women’s service the previous year.
Discussing their work in depth, each sister comes across as unaffected by influences outside of the group and the women they protect; there’s an evident tenderness as well as ferocity in their caring for the marginalised. As the group’s impassioned back-and-forth demonstrates, the beauty of Sisters Uncut is in its specificity: the changes they wish to see in the British system are upfront and firm. This reverberates through their ‘Feministo’. The document outlines the challenge they pose to violent UK immigration laws, the erosion of secure social housing and survivor-centred services, and the neglectful criminal justice system. It speaks for the forgotten and compromised: hunger strikers of the Yarl’s Wood women’s detention centre, the two in three women turned away from refuges, the LGBT and BME people made vulnerable by state belt-tightening.
Working to keep up with the demands of a government that’s ever-compressing who it cares about, the tendrils of the Sisters Uncut network are ever-expanding. But as much as it’s about making their voices heard with media-igniting moments, Sisters Uncut is also about healing on a local level – chanting or simply chatting, arms locked, very much surviving.
What’s distinct about how Sisters Uncut operates?
LH: We organise intersectionally – that’s really important to us.
JP: Yeah, because domestic violence is such a gendered thing. We’re organising as a trans-inclusive, survivor-centred movement, making sure that everyone who comes to our meetings feels safe.
JM: Anyone can start (a Sisters group) wherever they are. Often they come out of specific community causes–like the Doncaster Sisters who started because a service closed, and they managed to get it reopened. That’s completely badass.
BR: A lot of sisters I know are public-sector workers and survivors, so it’s a way of reclaiming space when other services can’t necessarily speak out against governmental policies–they’re silenced. Direct action can be powerful.
LH: They have to be grateful for the crumbs they can get and say thank you–but we don’t have to ask so nicely.
JM: Exactly. We can be that voice on the outside pushing for more, saying that it’s not enough. You don’t need any qualifications to be part of Sisters. It can be really great as a survivor to feel like you’re on the front line of the resistance. I did a Skype chat on International Women’s Day with a group of much older women in rural Wales who want to start a Sisters group. They’re all about 80 years old – they were like, ‘Oh, we just think this is amazing! Everything you do! What are the Baftas?’ It’s refreshing. And I’ve had cover letters before, but (it’s) like... just turn up!
JP: That’s so cute, it makes me want to cry!
You use fake names – is that to protect your identities?
JM: It’s a way to be a collective, because then it’s not about us as individuals.
JP: And it’s not overdramatising to say police can have tabs on people who do any kind of activism.
(Feminist art collective) Guerrilla Girls take the names of dead women artists, which is a super-poignant tribute.
JM: We talked about taking on names of suffragettes, but then we realised there were three brown people and... nah.
JP: That reminds me – we did this panel in Cambridge where we decided to do the whole presentation with each section as a Missy Elliott lyric from ‘Work It’, but we just couldn’t go through with it with all of these sick people from Decolonise Cambridge there!
PPA: That’s so funny – we do have fun with it sometimes, don’t we?
How do you all keep what the group does as a whole in check, particularly as such a sprawling collective that needs a harmonious, united voice?
BR: Every sister knows that they are accountable to themselves and to each other. It’s a constant learning experience.
PPA: We’re definitely conscious of it. I think it’s natural that if we live within these systems we’re going to fall into these behaviours, and there will be certain characters who tend to have more privilege, who will take on more of the leader role, just because of the way that we’re socialised. At least there is an accountability process that exists. It may not be perfect yet, but it’s there.
JM: At least you can be in a room where you can say phrases like ‘white supremacy’ without everyone gasping, which is a big step up from most other feminist spaces. We are a non-hierarchical organisation, so there are no leaders, and we meet weekly in our regional groups. We also abide by transformative justice, which means we’re all about the community and taking responsibility for harm, not having it individualised. We have a safer spaces policy that we read out at the beginning of every meeting.
JP: Our Feministo lays out what we’re fighting for, and that’s changed over time as things have moved on or been achieved. One thing that (we) won was panic rooms not being classified as a spare bedroom under the bedroom tax. It’s interesting to see how the narrative has shifted,with more talk around domestic violence services and state responsibility now. But that’s not to say things have improved too much.
For sure. Where do you see the real lack of urgency for change?
JP: The ‘genericisation’ of services. In a sector that’s so defunded, it’s really hard to be asking for anything beyond the bare minimum, which inevitably means it’s those normalised by the state (who get all the money). When an advance is won, it’s more likely to be for white, cis, middle-class, straight, English-speaking, Christian survivors.
PPA: It’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, we’ve got more beds.’ Because it’s like, what are (these centres) specialising in? Who arethey for? It’s not just about our fight to have more beds–it’s also about whether there are beds specifically for trans women. Otherwise we’re not really doing our job.
LH: Eighty per cent of trans people experience domestic violence in their lifetime. There just aren’t the services to meet those needs.
JM: It’s really easy to see progress for a certain group of people.
PPA: Yarl’s Wood is urgent, and we should be responding in an urgent way.
JM: Trauma is long-term and we don’t have any kind of support system that isn’t just state-controlled. We know that 57 per cent of women in prison are survivors of domestic violence. We are punishing people for being survivors. The current domestic violence bill is just lip service for Theresa May, (so she can) act like she gives a shit. These laws only make a certain kind of person feel safer.
BR: It’s making certain survivors feel safer, but I think we also need to question that feeling – like, are they actually safer? No, it’s a feeling, it’s an illusion. There is no real safety, there’s no improvement, it’s just as horrific as it’s always been.
JP: Two women a week are murdered by a former partner. That number hasn’t changed, the root cause hasn’t changed, the power dynamics of gendered violence haven’t changed.
BR: There is no long-term therapeutic support for survivors of domestic violence, which is madness. It’s long-term trauma that will ripple through their lives and constantly impact everything that they do.
What do you think of the current strain of large-scale activism, like Time’s Up and Me Too?
JM: One of the biggest things with direct action is finding a hook. When we planned the action around the Baftas we didn’t want it to look like we were critiquing the Time’s Up movement. We were adding to the discussion, and breaking into that really big moment. This is about sexual violence, gender violence, but what we noticed in the narrative is that a lot of it is about individuals and individual consequences. We wanted to broaden the conversation to (include) the state’s responsibility to survivors – that’s why the domestic violence bill fits into that.
PPA: I think another difficulty is that someone speaking out now and saying ‘me too’, what cost does that come with? The movement was started by a black woman, Tarana Burke. That has been lost somewhere in the narrative – it’s been taken over by white women in Hollywood. For them, saying ‘me too’ doesn’t come at the same cost as it does for Tarana, so for some of the survivors that we come into contact with who have no access to public funds, or trans women... at what cost is it for them to say ‘me too’? It’s often the detention centre. Pushing people to speak out against their abuse often means they are gonna be involved with the state. I feel like (we need) ‘me too’, but not with the state: a ‘me too’ with refuges, a ‘me too’ with long-term support.
JP: We’ve got to shout out the Time’s Up UK movement – there are important organisations in the women’s sector supporting it and donations are going towards grassroots organisations. We’ve been working on the domestic violence bill long before the Time’s Up movement, though, and we have a responsibility to say what some people in Time’s Up couldn’t say.
What’s the biggest challenge involved in being an activist today?
PPA: There is a reality that people who can do this work will often (be people with) spare time, money and other privileges. I think that feminism is fashionable now, and a lot of it is very academic. It’s not always going to be representative because, often, the people that we fight for have bigger fish to fry.
JP: There can be a high turnover. That is partly because this work is so demanding and people need to take time out. It can be brutal and unforgiving. We do have fun, though! I think that’s because of the sisterhood. I have made some of the best friends I will have for the rest of my life.
JM: It’s empowering to be a part of. There’s a lot of love in Sisters. Not everyone is gonna be an easy person to get along with or is somebody you would hang out with in normal life, but that’s fine. It’s still deeper than a working relationship because we’ve bonded over these hardcore issues.
JP: There’s a shared trauma.
How do you navigate keeping those smaller, more DIY actions at the heart of what you do as well as the national campaigning?
LH: We want to build a mass movement. And we want to make sure it is accessible to more marginalised voices.
JM: I was really touched recently, because a friend in prison who has cancer was dealing with a lot of medical abuse, where they refuse or delay treatment. That’s not part of your punishment, that’s just the prison system being horrible and violent. And basically she’s been dealing with a lot of shit. Sisters in north (London) dedicated half the meeting to writing cards and letters to her. It’s lovely, and that’s the kind of stuff that goes unseen, those big and great acts of feminist love and care, to support people in those kind of ways. We do community events, but we really need to do more of it.
JP: With the Baftas – we’ve got a very good, very big media strategy, which gives the impression of it being really easy. But a lot of it is hard and unglamorous.
JM: To be honest, I’m kind of sick of raising awareness. I want action now. As soon as you suggest that someone actually changes their behaviour or changes legislation, they all flip out. There’s another battle there; I think that we’re not doing enough to prevent the violence in the first place. We have to talk about who’s listening to the current movement.
How do you think we’ll characterise this moment of political and social change when we look back?
PPA: I do hope that, whatever feminism is today, in 30 years’ time we have enough humanity to evolve as well. There might be new research, new identities and who knows what else that we will struggle to come to terms with.
JM: I think that we’re still in the really early stages of gender conversations in the mainstream. My views on gender from even just (a few) years ago are completely obsolete.
JP: I think it will be the struggle with freedom of movement and borders.
PPA: No borders in 20 years – yeah, that would be great!
Do you feel like the current movement is winning?
LH: I feel like even just having a radical and empowering space in such a hostile environment is a success.
JP: Munroe Bergdorf said that when she went to the East End Sisters occupation (in Hackney, to highlight the need for refuges for victims of domestic violence) she felt really welcomed – it’s so wicked that we’re able to make a space which is so inclusive.
JM: Success is often related to capitalism and how much money you make, how much status. If your main vision is to smash the patriarchy, dismantle capitalism andend white supremacy, you’re obviously not going to achieve that in our lifetime. But our influence is seen in things – we are powerful.
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