By Marie-Claire Chappet
here is trouble, and then there is ‘Good Trouble’. The latter term, coined by the late, great Civil Rights leader John Lewis, is a way to describe civil disobedience for a higher aim: the lifeblood of protest.
Dania Al Obeid was looking for neither when she attended the protest over the death of Sarah Everard on 13 March, 2021. The good trouble of activism was not–and is still not a term she feels comfortable with, nor one she would even, she tells me, know how to describe.
Instead, when she walked alone to Clapham Common that night, she was looking for something else entirely. “I just wanted to stand with people,” she tells me. “It was something I felt I needed.”
We are talking, sitting huddled together by the river at Oakley Court, the venue of the most recent The Stack World Conference where, just an hour later, Al Obeid is due to go on stage. She is part of a panel discussion on Laws Against Women, to discuss what happened that night in 2021.
It was a vigil staged to commemorate the tragic murder of Sarah Everard, the 33-year-old woman who had been snatched from that very area ten days earlier, before being brutally raped and murdered by a serving police officer, Wayne Couzens. The candlelit gathering soon became headline news, as police were seen dramatically wrestling women to the ground and arresting others – ostensibly under the belief that the event was unlawful due to Covid restrictions. One of these women was Dania Al Obeid.
“After Sarah Everard was killed, women in Clapham were told not to go out at night. Imagine if police knocked on doors in Clapham that night and told men that they couldn’t go out on their own."
The vigil was actually – both before and latterly by the High Court - deemed entirely lawful. In fact, attendance was considered a human right. In light of this, Al Obeid, is now bringing a landmark legal case against the Metropolitan Police, not only to force accountability for their actions of that night, but for the criminal conviction for this which she shockingly – due to a convoluted bureaucratic mishandling on their part-received in her absence and without her knowledge in June 2022. Her treatment at the hands of the Met has not only angered her, it has proved an extraordinarily triggering experience.
“I remember I felt a lot of anger when I was arrested,and then shame for feeling angry. Throughout the vigil, I wanted to push back. I wanted to claim my space, I wanted other women to claim their space too, like we deserve to be there. I can’t legally go into details of how I got arrested - but I remember feeling like that space was taken back from us. I was silenced again, and it took me back to how I used to feel...”
The fact is, Al Obeid sought out this protest for a very specific reason: catharsis. Silence had become so much a reality of her life, that its daily stranglehold had become a pressure valve, needy for a release. Sarah Everard’s murder had hit her in an extremely personal way. “All I could think of, when I heard about her death, was what those last minutes must have felt like for her - that terror,’ she says, smiling sadly, with a dark sense of resignation. ‘I know what that feeling is like. I’ve had so many moments of – oh this is it, this is how I die.”
Until her early twenties, the now 28-year-old Al Obeid was a victim of sustained domestic abuse. Her abuser was a man within her family, someone she describes as mentally vulnerable, but whose actions towards her she likens to a strategic ‘operation’ of violence, gas-lighting and silencing. “It took away my voice, it took away my dignity, my humanity. It left me emotionally paralysed, it impacted me financially and psychologically...” She takes a pained breath. “I mean, you get abused, and then if you manage to free from the abuse, you then have to deal with his psychological rami cations afterwards, through nightmares, panic attacks, through PTSD basically.”
"I had a criminal record… That has now been expunged – but that was the last straw for me. I’m too angry now. I want accountability for what they’ve done.”
“I got to a moment in my life where I just burst. When I came to Sarah’s vigil, I still hadn’t spoken about what happened in my story, but I was like, OK, so many women are angry about this. And maybe they feel what I’m feeling. And maybe it is more than me going through this. I need to stand with other women. I need to honour her life,” she continues, pausing before she adds: “I couldn’t say anything about my story, but maybe I could speak for Sarah, to stand for her.”
The incredibly brave, articulate woman sitting before me now, feels like someone who would never be afraid to say anything. She is, after all, in the middle of taking on one of the biggest institutions in Britain - the police. There is fight in Al Obeid. Yet, she tells me, her bravery has been hard-won. Indeed, it’s interesting to see how persistently surprised she still is by her own ability to talk about her story, how the company of other women today (also talking about anything and everything) is so liberating for her. And one thing she is keen to talk about – and goes back to again and again in our conversation is anger. Dania Al Obeid is finally mad as hell, and she’s not going to take it anymore.
“My therapist told me I am the angriest person he’s ever met,” she laughs – and it’s a wonderful laugh, one which you feel angry was ever quieted. “But I’m angry because for so long I wasn’t allowed to be angry. It mimics what happened with the Met. We finally allow ourselves to be angry about this objectively horrific thing – the murder and rape of a young woman,by a police officer — and then, when we express that rage, we get smacked down and told to be quiet. It was just the same with my abuser.”
Abused women are often kept in silos in this way, kept from communicating their pain (“we are left feeling silence is easier,” she says) and prevented from finding solidarity – and therefore power in groups of other women. We reflect that this is what we see happening in Iran right now, with the protests following the death of Mahsa Amini. There, the bravery of each individual woman is due to the bravery of every other woman she stands with.
"When we express that rage, we get smacked down and told to be quiet."
It is a sight which both saddens and inspires Al Obeid. “It reminds me of why I went to Sarah’s vigil — something I actually felt very selfish about at the time — which was to fund support among a group of women, to make myself feel less alone,” she says. “Watching what is happening in Iran, it makes me so happy to see how free they feel expressing their anger. They are so angry that they have got to the point where they don’t fear for their safety. I understand that, I am done making allowances for men, like changing into trainers on my way home in case I have to run from them. I have a defiance in me now.”
Of course, these women should be angry, as should we. In the UK, we live in a society where male violence towards women is deadlier than terrorism. In 2019, there were two deaths from terrorism and 128 women were killed by men, in 2020, three deaths from terrorism and 110 women killed by men. While the government has deployed almost limitless (and often blatantly discriminatory) resources to deal with the threat of terror, the very real, insidious and noxious threat of male violence, is frequently, not only dismissed, but practically accommodated – we quite literally negotiate with terrorists.
As Laura Bates, founder of The Everyday Sexism Project, and author of Fix the System, not the Women (Simon & Schuster, £12.99) observed at Dania’s panel later that afternoon; “After Sarah Everard was killed, women in Clapham were told not to go out at night. Imagine if police had knocked on doors in Clapham that night and told men that they couldn’t go out on their own. “Sorry you have to go out in pairs because one of you is killing people, and we don’t know which one”. We should be focusing, not on what women can be doing better, but what the society can be doing so as not to fail them.”
Much has been said about the fact that Sarah Everard’s death changed the conversation in this way. When we hear about female victims, the discourse has far too often immediately centred on what she was doing, where she was, at what time of night and – of course — that age-old question: What was she wearing? The fact is, of course, Everard’s death was nothing to do with what she was wearing, and everything to do with what her murderer was wearing... a police uniform.
“The way the police then behaved at the vigil, and subsequently, has just added insult to injury,” says Pippa Woodrow, a human rights barrister who became Al Obeid’s lawyer following her arrest and who had been part of the legal team instrumental in proving the legality of the vigil – both before and after it took place. “We’d had several meetings with the police where it had become clear – shockingly — that they just didn’t understand the law. It was gut wrenching to watch what then happened at the vigil, after all that. But I do consider it a privilege to have met women like Dania. I’m so happy that she has come to find her voice.”
Woodrow tells me that, even with the High Court ruling which set out the human rights violation Al Obeid had suffered, she had demurred from bringing a civil claim for wrongful arrest against the Met. That all changed last summer, when she was incredibly surprised to hear – through a journalist - that she had been convicted in her absence, without trial.
"I remember I felt a lot of anger when I was arrested,and then shame for feeling angry. Throughout the vigil, I wanted to push back. I wanted to claim my space."
Despite promising to email her while she was living out of the country, the Met instead communicated with her by letters sent to an address she no longer lived at. “I had a criminal record which meant I could no longer work with children,’ she says. ‘That has now been expunged – the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) did not think the case was in the public interest - but that was the last straw for me. I’m too angry now. I want accountability for what they’ve done.”
Her case is now being handled by Rachel Harger, of Bindmans law firm. “The Metropolitan Police’s efforts to double down on their attempts to legitimise their policing operation and conduct in and around the Clapham Common vigil is entirely unsurprising, but the fact that they have continued to do so under immense public scrutiny and criticism further illustrates that this is a police force that believes it should be able to act with impunity,” she says, before commending Al Obeid’s bravery; “It is no small feat to take on litigating a well-resourced publicly funded institution, which is also heavily politically supported by the government of the day.’ When approached for comment, the Met simply responded: ‘We have received notification of a proposed civil claim and will be making no further comment whilst the claim is ongoing.”
When we discuss the desired outcome of her case, Al Obeid’s only reply is that she wants the blame placed squarely where it belongs. After years of living with shame for her own abuse, she never wants to shoulder misdirected guilt again. “I hope that by making them accountable we can change the way they act and force a reckoning,’ she says, hoping the case inspires anyone else to come forward about the way the police have mishandled – all too often violence against women. ‘Something has to change, because whatever they are doing is not working – so many more women have been killed since Sarah Everard.”
I ask if her life post the vigil, and her brave campaign against the Met, have made her an activist. She blanches at the suggestion, perhaps unaware of the immense impact she is making and the fact she has welled up with tears telling me she wants to speak up so that other victims of abuse will know the one simple thing she didn’t know for too many years: ‘It’s not your fault.’ What she does know is that since the vigil, she has never felt more alive. “Life has got better since I’ve been using my voice,” she says. “My abuser took away my humaneness, my will to live, my excitement. So now, I would rather speak my mind and live in that moment as a free human being, even if I am attacked for it. I don’t care anymore because I know it feels worse to be silent.”
She may not see herself as an activist, but the world should get ready for Dania Al Obeid. She may finally be ready to make some Good Trouble.
Dania Al Obeid was arrested and convicted at the Sarah Everard vigil, and now she is taking the Metropolitan Police to court — here she tells The Stack World her story.
By Marie-Claire Chappet
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