Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
It is difficult to know how to write about the recent kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard, or the deeply unwelcome, horribly omnipresent shadow that it has cast over the lives of so many women. The profound impact that her death has had on so many people may be difficult to fully understand if you are not yourself someone who has reason to feel increasingly vulnerable with every new detail that her investigation uncovers.
Articulating the effect of the unfolding of her case is perhaps as uncomfortable as witnessing it. Maybe you don’t stop walking home alone at night. But maybe you do. Maybe you also start to double – triple – check that your front door is locked behind you when you get in. Perhaps you begin looking at the women in your life – your sisters, friends, even your mother – and repeating again and again a silent, wordless prayer that they will always be okay, that they will somehow remain protected in a world where even women who are safe, who are careful and sensible, are found in bags in the woods. You pray that they will never walk through the wrong park on the wrong evening. That they will never be Sarah.
But, as this recent chant hauntingly reminds you: “We are all Sarah.”
Many women have found that the intensity of their reaction to Sarah’s murder has surprised them. After all, we have been aware of violence against women, and taken steps to protect ourselves, for a very long time. There is something about this particular case, though, that has made many realise – in a way that makes them feel a little sick – that perhaps their mothers weren’t being paranoid when they instructed them take photos of their taxis’ registration plates; that their friend wasn’t being overbearing when they sternly requested to be kept updated throughout that date. If you are a woman, you may have found yourself remembering all the times that you walked home alone at 2am, or trusted a stranger, and wondering whether you should have been more scared in the past. You certainly feel scared now.
Just over a month ago, two students at the University of Edinburgh designated one of the trees on the Meadows “Sarah’s Tree”, inviting people to lay flowers at the site or tie a ribbon to a branch. This simple and earnest gesture has had a profound impact. Sarah’s Tree has helped many to make sense of their emotions, reassuring them that they are not paranoid, or overreacting, or indulging in a victim complex. The tree validates what has been, for many, an unexpectedly emotional response to a stranger’s death. This 15-foot Kanzan Cherry is physical and visual proof that these emotions and fears are felt by many, many others. Walking by Sarah’s tree, women can know that there are others who understand their pain, and they can feel heard – without having to say anything.
Around Sarah’s Tree, the Meadows remain unchanged. Dogs are walked and parents push prams. Students hurry to the library, and the queue by Uplands Roast grows ever longer. The presence of Sarah’s tree at the centre of so many scenes of normality is quietly and deeply moving. It suggests that perhaps this is a community that understands women’s fears. That perhaps this is a country that recognises them, that desperately wants to do something about them.
Edinburgh was unable to hold a vigil for Sarah due to COVID restrictions, but her tree articulates what cannot be adequately communicated in the disconnected world that the pandemic has forced us to inhabit. It is a reminder that even though we can’t be together, we are all together.
Indeed, much of the power of Sarah’s tree is that it exists in the physical world. 23-year-old Martha Reilly, one of the founders of Sarah’s Tree, has emphasised the importance of real, tangible things: “as much as social media is great, we still need public ways to stimulate discussion”. Sarah’s Tree fills this role, and goes a step further than social media activism precisely because it will be seen by many who would not usually have looked – by those who don’t follow the right Facebook or Instagram pages, who don’t read the news, and who would usually choose not to “engage” in this “conversation”. The existence of public sites like this can make it easier for women to talk about their “issues”, as we have a claim to validity: Look, we can say, it isn’t just me who feels this way – there are a lot of ribbons on the tree.
Somewhere amid the horror of Sarah’s case, there is some small comfort to be found in the country’s response to it. On a national scale, Priti Patel has indicated that new laws may be crafted in order to protect women from sexual harassment; the House of Lords has debated an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill that would make misogyny a hate crime; and many women and men have taken to social media, sharing their experiences in a swell of solidarity and questioning what they can do to help women feel safer.
And locally, a simple gesture made by two university students has given the entire Meadows community a site at which to mourn, to pay their respects, and to stand by themselves or with members of their household and know that there are many, many others standing there with them.