Just six months after Sarah Everard was kidnapped, raped and murdered in the UK by an off-duty police officer, the disappearance of Gabriela Pettito while traveling with her fiancé in the US, her confirmed death is now making international headlines. Although Everard and Petito’s stories are different, they amplify the sense that gender-based violence threatens women everywhere.
Then, a week or so after Pettito’s case appeared in the media, another violent death was reported in the UK, Sabina Nyssa, a 28-year-old teacher who was walking to a pub near her home in south London. .
The Nyssa case has heightened local fears that women are unsafe on the streets of London. But this fear is a universal fear. It is nothing less than a reaction to another pandemic – gender-based violence – that has plagued our society, exacerbated by COVID-19.
vision for some
Between March 2021 and September 2021, many women around the world were missing or killed. However, we don’t even know the names or circumstances of most of them – even those in the UK or US – because their stories didn’t make national or international headlines.
So why do some stories make news while others don’t?
Feminist media scholars have long pointed out that the race, class, and age of victims of gender-related violence play a critical role in determining whether stories are worth publishing as well as how they are framed; That is, whether the victims are portrayed as “innocent” or, on the contrary, shame and blame.
The families of the victims whose stories went unheeded know this all too well. In a recent article in the Washington Post, they decried the silence surrounding the deaths of loved ones. They insist that Gabriela Pettito’s case has received widespread attention from the international media precisely because she was white, middle-class, and attractive. While the disappearances of loved ones — women of color, poor women, and trans women — have not been publicly recorded, at best.
However, this mixed media coverage only reflects a broader societal reality: Some people’s lives are considered more heartbreaking, and therefore, their deaths generate a general outpouring of grief. Other spirits, as feminist philosopher Judith Butler has taught us, are considered less valuable.
We live, she says, in a society in which the distribution of livable life is highly unequal, and saddened only by those who are recognized as “important” in the broadest social and public sense.
This also helps illustrate the power of the hashtag #SayHerName, which was launched as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the number of black women and girls murdered by law enforcement officers in the United States. It is now used in connection with the murder of Sabina Nyssa.
The generic naming of victims is not just about raising awareness or even recognizing the uniqueness of each victim, each with their own history, emotions, and dreams. Instead, by naming these women, we are refusing to turn them into a number or a statistic, while also claiming – crucially – that every life counts and is, therefore, sad.
Make the media responsible
While the brutal murder of Sabina Nyssa has already made national and even international news, social media commentators have noted an initial lack of mainstream media attention. This is because unlike Everard and Petito, Nessa was a woman of color.
In the aftermath of the murder, a Twitter storm began, confirming the difference between the Nyssa case and the kind of media attention that Everard’s case has received from the start.
Tweets like one by popular actress and TV presenter Jamila Jamil, which demanded “the same energy and level of anger” in the Nysa case as in the Everard case, have made it difficult for traditional media to ignore the growing anger arising from the lack of equal coverage in the UK.
Given that the UK’s mainstream media is following the case on a daily basis, it appears that intrusions through cyberspace have had an effect. In fact, they seem to have pushed the placement of racial accounts within traditional media, spurred by the power of influencers and social media.
But hashtag movements do not appear out of nowhere. After all, the past few years have also seen growing anger, frustration, and public mobilization around gender-based and racial violence. Thus, one cannot truly 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 demonstrations in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
This potent combination helped open the gates of anger over the way in which sex and race continue to make certain lives – and often the lives of black and wild women – less worthy and therefore less sad than others.
So we can start with #SayHerName: Sabina Nessa.
But we can’t stop there.
We also need to hold the media accountable for their coverage of all lives equally, to eradicate this gender-based epidemic, and to work tirelessly for a world where every life is heartbreaking precisely because it is livable.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.