Editorials

“She Was Just…”: The Problem with the Phrase

18 January 2022

By Michaela Makusha

Yet another young woman has been murdered. Ashling Murphy was a 22-year-old school teacher and strangled to death last week on the banks of the Grand Canal, Tullamore, County Offaly.

The phrase “she was just…” has been a notable slogan used in response to the murders of women. “She was just walking home,” echoed after Sarah Everard was kidnapped and murdered by a police officer. “She was just out for a run” has become the slogan for Ashling Murphy, and “she was just walking to the pub,” was one we heard for Sabina Nessa, a school teacher murdered last year.

It’s a phrase used to express the anger we all feel that a woman can’t go about her day without the possibility of being assaulted or killed by a man.

We have to find alternative routes home and send out our locations to friends. We make up fake partners and stories to be left alone. We do everything ‘right’ – and it still can get us killed.

Laura Bates, the author of the book Everyday Sexism, has criticised the phrase “she was just…” on Instagram, writing: “When we say ‘she was just doing this’ or ‘she was just doing that’, it suggests that the case wouldn’t have been quite so awful or tragic if she had been doing something else.”

I agree with that point – it doesn’t matter what a woman was doing. Nobody deserves to be targeted because of their gender.

Recommended Reading: The Police’s Problem with Violence against Women.violence against women

A woman shouldn’t have to do everything right to be seen as sympathetic. If it were a prostitute who had been killed, the slogan wouldn’t be “she was just working”. There would be pundits and think pieces blaming her and advocating that all sex workers be locked up for their own safety.

The most famous example of the demonisation of murdered women would was during the Yorkshire Ripper murders.

The West Yorkshire Police’s sexist and careless attitudes towards the victims, most of whom were sex workers, reflect the societal-wide attitudes at the time. Women were told to stay inside as if it was their fault someone was murdering women at night.

Most tellingly, Sir Michael Havers, Attorney General at the time, said: “Some were prostitutes but perhaps the saddest part of the case is that some were not. The last six attacks were on totally respectable women.”

We haven’t moved on much since.

Read more: Sarah Everard and the Met Police failure

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We are still in an age in which women are told they can be anything they want in life. But in death, we have to have lived ‘respectable’ lives in order to be seen as victims.

Perhaps this is the only slogan we’ll have for a while because we have to drive home that all of these women were just going about their days before their lives were taken.

But we have to develop in order for a more intersectional approach that recognises all women as victims.

So, yes. Ashling Murphy and Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa and so many others were just walking or jogging. But women should be able to just do whatever they want and not be killed.

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