Red carpets and purple flares: direct action with Sisters Uncut

Clare Walton reports on Sisters Uncut, the grassroots group taking direct action to defend domestic violence services

February 20, 2016 · 5 min read

sisters-uncutSisters Uncut storm the red carpet at the premiere of Suffragette, highlighting cuts to domestic violence services. Photo: Claudia Moroni/Sisters Uncut

London-based Sisters Uncut grabbed headlines across the world late last year when they ‘invaded’ the red carpet at the premiere of the film Suffragette, chanting ‘Dead women can’t vote!’ The dozen women staging a ‘die-in’ on the red carpet, accompanied by more than 100 other women supporting the action from behind the barriers, wanted to draw attention to the deadly cost of the government’s cuts to domestic violence services and make clear that the battle for gender equality has not yet been won.

Janelle Brown and Vicky Jones of Sisters Uncut are clear that the action wasn’t a protest against the film itself, though they do criticise the absence of women-of-colour Suffragettes. Rather, they say that with the world’s media on their doorstep, the film premiere presented the group with an ‘unmissable opportunity’ to get their message out. Their plan worked, with coverage as far away as Australia and the film’s stars praising the protest during interviews.

Sisters Uncut formed in 2014, during the last year of the coalition government, which pushed through 30 per cent cuts to domestic violence services, leading to the closure of 32 refuges – with specialist refuges for ethnic minority women disproportionately bearing the brunt. These cuts have serious consequences on women fleeing life-threatening violence, with two women a week killed by their partners or former partners in the UK.

The group has grown rapidly over the last year, but established its core demands at an early stage. These include stopping cuts and restoring funding to domestic violence services; ending the policy of ‘no recourse to public funds’ for migrant women, which makes it even more difficult for them to leave abusive relationships; and improving social housing provision, making it easier for women to get safer homes of their own. These demands are all winnable, says Brown.

Sisters Uncut’s radical edge comes from ‘the way that we organise’, she says. First, it is for self-defining women and non-gender binary people only. ‘Liberation struggles have to be fought and won by the people whose liberation is at stake . . . it’s not like the cavalry was coming anyway,’ she insists.

There are numerous benefits to the group being a space without men, Brown and Jones explain. Many of the group’s members work in the domestic violence sector and among the organisers are domestic violence survivors who have disclosed their experiences to the group, meaning a priority is given to mutual care, with a deep solidarity and ‘sense of community’ having developed among the group members.

Organising as women and non-binary folk also means that the group can be more inclusive and minimises power dynamics. Sisters are clear that there are still privilege and power dynamics within the group but they are committed to learning and to intersectionality. Their ‘Feministo’ states that ‘as intersectional feminists we understand that a woman’s individual experience of violence is affected by race, class, disability, sexuality and immigration status’ and they aim to ‘offset power imbalances in society’. Brown suggests that men who want to support them can do so by ‘supporting a Sister, such as by doing childcare’.

The group’s chosen method of communicating their message and shaming the government is direct action. This has included blockading Oxford Circus and burning copies of the Daily Mail outside its HQ, highlighting the deeply damaging rhetoric printed by the newspaper about migrants and women. Characterised by their green and purple flares and rowdy chants, Sisters’ actions have an exciting aesthetic to them.

While party politics has been rattled by the surprise election of Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour Party leader, ‘Corbynism’ hasn’t been discussed at the weekly Sisters organising meetings. Corbyn’s ‘Working with Women’ document published in July pledges to take action on pay inequality, recognise the unpaid care work of women, reverse cuts to adult social care and, crucially, to domestic violence services and instead properly fund them. Brown calls these ideas ‘insightful’ but insists that Sisters are clear that they are non-partisan and that whoever is in power will be targeted until their demands are met by politicians.

Sisters Uncut aren’t waiting for the future to come to them though. They are busy already throwing their weight behind ‘sister’ campaigns. In mid-October they joined Black Dissidents in backing the Latin American community organising group London Latinxs’ blockade of the Kings Cross St Pancras Eurostar terminal to protest at the daily deaths at Europe’s borders and to demand their opening.

Sisters also recently joined the Movement for Justice by Any Means Necessary for a protest outside the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre, which mainly holds migrant women and has been repeatedly lambasted for the prevalence of racist, violent and sexual abuse against these women in the centre.

Sisters Uncut’s numbers and profile continues to grow, with more than 150 people attending the organising meeting that followed the red carpet action and more than 50 regular and committed organisers. Jones and Brown laugh at the idea that the group have been described as ‘celebrities of the activist world’ but follow up with the serious comment that ‘if people know about Sisters, then our strategy is working.’

With women from all over the country now approaching the London-based campaign for help in setting up a group in their own town or city, it’s clear the way in which Sisters organise and protest resonates, and that they have a real opportunity to win on their demands.

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