Danya Roy and Jaz Harper
At the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, we seek to highlight those around the world who are working to promote gender equality and challenge the status quo. The people we interview occupy many different roles within NGOs, foreign policy, and charities, among many. Aside from their impressive careers, our interviewees are feminist actors with a wealth of advice (and book recommendations!).
This month we spoke with Danya Roy and Jaz Harper from Sisters Uncut, a British feminist direct action group that fight cuts to domestic violence services in the UK. Most recently, the group stormed the red carpet at the Baftas to protest the new domestic violence bill.
JB: Hi Danya and Jaz! Tell me more about Sisters Uncut and your current roles.
Danya Roy (DR): Sisters Uncut is an intersectional feminist direct-action group which campaigns against the cuts to domestic violence (DV) services in the UK. We formed in 2014 in someone’s living room and aimed to bring a feminist angle to the drastic austerity cuts. Our most well-known action was when we stormed the red carpet of the Suffragette film premiere in 2015 and made international headlines.
Jaz Harper (JH): The fact that we do direct action means that some of the things we do are illegal or ‘spikey’. This means that we try to stay anonymous and non-hierarchical, working together as a group and a movement. All our decisions are made by consensus, meaning that every member must agree for us to take an action forward.
DR: We have many different working groups – including media, outreach, propaganda, finance and logistics. I work within the media group to engage the media in the UK in a productive way to share our key messages. Our campaigns use very clear, concise messaging that everyday people can get on board with, nothing complicated. We have a good relationship in general with UK press because we try to make a case for things that no one can argue against. When we stormed the red carpet in 2015, for example, our key message was ‘Dead Women Can’t Vote’. No one will ever argue that women should be dying from DV or women shouldn’t vote, so it was a powerful slogan.
JH: I work in the propaganda group. We create beautiful banners, placards, sashes and patches for Sisters, and organise the visuals of Sisters’ actions. One of the reasons we have been so successful is our eye-catching colours and bold actions, like dying the fountains in Trafalgar Square red.
JB: What drew you to working in domestic violence services/policy?
JH: I’ve always been a feminist but was drawn to Sisters Uncut because of the devastating cuts to domestic violence services and the impact this has on women’s lives. At the moment, two women a week are murdered by a current or ex-partner in England and Wales. Since 2010, DV support services and places of refuge have continually faced on-going cuts or threats of closure. As a result, two-thirds of all places of refuge are likely to close, leaving women stuck in abusive relationships with nowhere to go.
JB: What are some challenges Sisters Uncut have faced since their formation?
JH: We began as one large group meeting in central London in 2014, protesting cuts to services by taking action at the national policy level and targeting central government. However, by 2016 we realised that to affect change we also needed to work at the grassroots level to build a movement against austerity within our communities.
DR: We now have groups in North London, East London, South East London, Doncaster, Portsmouth, Birmingham, Manchester, and Glasgow, among others, which meet every week.
JB: What keeps the team motivated?
JH: One of the most important things that keeps us motivated is our creation of a safe spaces in our meetings, an almost alternative reality. For instance, last year in June we occupied Holloway women’s prison, which has been closed down by the government and looks to be sold off to create luxury flats, while nine new mega-prisons are being built in rural areas. It currently stands empty, with two security guards paid to guard the visitor’s centre – a brand new, accessible building. So we decided to break in through an open window.
We wanted to draw attention to the fact that this eight acre plot of land could and should be used for something meaningful as a way of rectifying the painful legacy that took place there. Holloway was the largest women’s prison in Western Europe –suffragettes were imprisoned, force-fed and labeled terrorists there, but also, thousands upon thousands of ordinary women, often committing crimes of survival, ended up in Holloway. Currently 80% of all women in prison are there for non-violent crimes and nearly half are actually survivors of DV themselves.
DR: By taking over the prison for a week, we invited local people and organised activities for children in the half-term school holidays. Workshops included housing advice, immigration raids workshops, bike-fixing workshops, singing classes, arts and crafts sessions etc. We provided breakfast, lunch and dinner, and closed the space after a week with a vigil for all the women who had died at the hands of state violence.
We created a real sense of community in the face of government cuts and this is what motivates us. If a volunteer group of women can create such a loving safe space, then why can’t the government?
JB: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
JH: Yes, of course, an intersectional feminist. We know that sexism must be defeated alongside racism, homophobia, transphobia and economic injustice to achieve true equality.
JB: What do you think a feminist domestic policy would look like?
JH: At the moment, governments focus on how to save money, not how to support women to live fulfilled lives. A feminist domestic policy would see an end to cuts to DV services and all funding that was previously cut restored. This would also include funding for specialist DV services, e.g. BME, LGBT, mental health and substance abuse services. DV survivors should be guaranteed legal aid and social housing as they are otherwise left few alternatives. Ultimately, benefits and welfare are important social safety nets.
JB: How would this relate to a feminist foreign policy?
DR: Like domestic policy, government foreign policy simply doesn’t centralise people and, in particular, it doesn’t centralise women, non-binary, gender variant and gender queer people. The way in which both foreign and domestic policy operate at the moment is to further the interests of profit and the national interests of rich, white male elites. We need to create both domestic and foreign policy which works for women to further equality rather than selfish interests.
JB: Tell me more about your current projects and what you are working towards.
DR: This year is 100 years since women’s suffrage, and the government also announced a new DV and Abuse Bill. This is a really big opportunity for us. Although, on some level, we have played an important role in even putting DV on the agenda, the bill looks set to fall short of protecting survivors.
The bill focuses on criminalisation and locking more men up for violent crimes, rather than guaranteeing any funding for services. We believe survivors aren’t safe if services aren’t secure. Locking more people up won’t make people safer, only long-term funding for services will protect women.
JB: What is your favorite book, fiction/non-fiction, by a woman author?
JH: Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach
DR: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
To stay up-to-date with Danya Roy & Jaz Harper and their work, follow them on Twitter here.
Interview by Jennifer Brough, Interview Coordinator. Twitter: @Jennifer_Brough