Is it time we stop saying "she was only..." after a woman is tragically killed?

·4 min read
Photo credit: Marina Petti - Getty Images
Photo credit: Marina Petti - Getty Images

Yesterday saw a tragic news story break, about a young Irish woman named Ashling Murphy. The 23-year-old teacher from Tullamore, County Offaly, was brutally attacked – and later died – while out jogging near a local canal. Heartbreakingly, her story isn't rare and her name joins the list of hundreds of other women who are killed each year (the majority at the hands of a male).

Some of those other names you will likely already know: Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa, Bibaa Smallman and Nicole Henry, to mention but a few.

And you'll also likely be familiar with some of the social media posts that followed those losses, bearing powerful statements such as 'she was only walking home' (after Sarah Everard's story). 'They were only having a picnic' following sisters Bibaa Smallman and Nicole Henry's. 'She was just five minutes from her house' after Sabina Nessa.

Those statements are important. They are true and they matter, as does each and every one of those women (it's horrendous to think anyone going about their daily lives should ever face abuse, violence or death). But, they are also not the full story and they do not encompass every single person who faces the threat of male violence – as ultimately, it really shouldn't matter what a woman was doing when she was attacked. There's never a justification for it.

Speaking in the wake of Ashling's senseless death, Ruth Davison, the CEO of Refuge, echoed those thoughts, saying that the 'she was only' sentimentality is the tip of a much larger, terrifying iceberg.

Photo credit: Hollie Adams - Getty Images
Photo credit: Hollie Adams - Getty Images

"The devastating death of Ashling Murphy has, understandably, raised the very real dangers that women face when doing everyday things, such as going for a run. The truth is, Ashling could have been anywhere, and doing anything," Davison explains. "Her life should not have been cut short by male violence.

"Every act of male violence against women is aggression that must be addressed and must be eradicated. Women should be free to run, to walk, to socialise, to enjoy life in the ways that men do, without having to look over our shoulders in fear. Our thoughts are with Ashling's family and friends as they process this immense loss. We must all recommit to end Violence Against Women and Girls. Women’s lives depend on it."

It's something being discussed by Laura Bates, a prolific feminist activist and founder of Everyday Sexism, in a now-viral Instagram post too, in which she says: "It doesn’t matter what she was doing. She shouldn’t be dead."

As a writer who spends every day covering breaking news, gut-twisting stories like Ashling's – like Sarah's, like Sabina's and every other woman's – never get any easier to write or read about. And each time, the little ball of fear that lives in my chest and stomach, saying, 'You're not safe from harm from men' grows a little bigger and I, somehow, still, manage to get angrier.

While, it's always there, it's not something I think about in every single moment of every single day. It's like when a car alarm goes off on your street and for the first few minutes it's all you can think of, until it starts to become less of a distraction – you've accepted it's there – and you can resume watching Netflix, answering emails or cooking dinner. Present, but not overbearing. Until another goes off.

Yes, I'm frustrated that I can't walk to the gym alone at night, without having to rope my boyfriend into accompanying me. Yes, I want to know when I'll feel safe enough to stop sharing my location with a friend if a taxi driver is giving a 'weird vibe'. Yes, I'd love to be able to leave a party and know that if I fancied a walk through the streets, maybe while a little tipsy and with my headphones in, I'd make it back unscathed.

But now, I'm also more conscious than ever that there are women who will have that 'what's that blaring car alarm?' feeling all day, every day. When they're making money as a sex worker. When they're at home with an abusive partner. Any time, any place.

Is focussing in on what a woman was doing when she died becoming on par with examining what a rape survivor was wearing when she was attacked? Is a woman who takes drugs and dies [at the hands of a man] after wandering alone at 2am less worthy of sympathy and outrage?

When will we all have to stop looking over our shoulders, no matter what time of day it is, no matter what we're doing? How much angrier do we need to get before something actually changes and women feel safe?

If you're feeling burnt out by the news cycle, here's how to cope. To join the fight on violence against women and to learn more about the organisations on the frontline, see here.

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