Why did it take so long for us to hear about Sabina Nessa’s tragic killing?

·8 min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Long, dark hair. Shining brown eyes. Hand clasped around her degree and a quietly proud smile. This image of Sabina Nessa, a 28-year-old woman from South London, who was found tragically killed ten days ago, is one that has dominated social media and news sites for the last few days.

The primary school teacher of Bangladeshi descent, who easily looks as though she could be in any of our friendship groups, was believed to have been killed during just a five-minute walk from her house to a local pub on a Friday night, where she’d been planning to meet a friend for a drink.

But why did it take so long for the now widely-circulated image to take hold? And how has it contributed to the important conversation about the violence women and non-binary people face on a daily basis in general?

Now, a 36-year-old man has been charged with Sabina's murder, and reports have claimed police are working on the assumption that he was a total stranger to her. But Sabina's death is not an isolated example.

Her deeply unsettling story comes just months after a public outcry over women's safety following the horrific kidnapping and murder of 33-year-old Londoner Sarah Everard back in March by a former police officer, as well as the recent death of 22-year-old American travel blogger Gabby Petito, which has been classified as homicide.

But while both of those women's cases received instant press attention, Sabina's story took longer to reach the public. Even though it was in a few newspapers the Monday after her death, it was right at the back and given just a short write-up. The lack of coverage around it was so noticeable that at one point, a couple of days on from that, it instigated a social media uprising to ensure her story was known, using the hashtag #SayHerName, with thousands sharing information about the case and the same photo that is now so recognisable.

Photo credit: Metropolitan Police/Alice Cowling
Photo credit: Metropolitan Police/Alice Cowling

The movement worked; it's hard to imagine there's now anybody in the country who hasn't heard the name Sabina Nessa, or seen her image which is currently all over the papers and has been shown repeatedly on TV, and hundreds attended a vigil held for her on Friday night, organised by Reclaim These Streets – a group campaigning for women's safety.

While progress is being made during the fight for justice for Sabina, with police developments now being shared almost daily, her tragic case has sparked important, wider questions that need answering: why did it take so long for Sabina’s story to reach us in the first place? Was her race part of the reason? And what about all the other women out there, whose stories never make it onto the front, or sometimes any, page?

On social media, many have been asking if things would have been different had Sabina, and other non-white women like her, been blonde with blue eyes and white skin. It’s something that Yvonne Jewkes, professor of Criminology at the University of Bath and author of Media and Crime, has spent years investigating. In Sabina's case, she feels there 'may be underlying issues around racism and misogyny' when it comes to the mainstream media taking longer to share Sabina's story, in that the media constantly look for stories that tick 'news worthy' boxes before sharing them.

In fact, Jewkes explains, there’s even a name for the phenomenon that could be at play here: Missing White Woman Syndrome, wherein white, conventionally attractive, middle-class women's stories receive disproportionate media attention.

But, Jewkes also rightly points out that the social media campaign to share Sabina's story was successful – and that could be because of other factors, not related to skin colour. "Sabina wasn’t white – I believe she was British Bangladeshi – but in media terms she's 'respectable.' She was close to her family, had a professional career as a primary teacher, all media are using a photo of her at her graduation, and she was killed in London. She was also young and conventionally attractive. Had she been a sex worker, or been a woman in her 60s or 70s, it might have had even less media attention."

Sabina’s death is horrific, but it’s not isolated: since Sarah Everard’s murder earlier this year, a total of 77 other women are thought to have been murdered here in the UK, with a man being the principal suspect. When looking back on this year as a whole, the number is more than 100. How many of their names do we know?

"When we talk about naming Sabina we should talk about naming all those women," says Jewkes. "They all had important lives and were mothers, daughters, sisters. They somehow slip into anonymity because there are so many of them. It’s shocking as well as tragic.

"The [killing] of women by men in 2021 is so commonplace it almost doesn’t register in the media agenda. It takes something else to make it newsworthy, like Sabina being killed in a park, which taps into the public consciousness."

Dr Karen Salve Green, Director of the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons, agrees there "certainly is racial basis in the reporting of missing person cases" and accepts that could be a factor in Sabina's story. But she also adds: "If there wasn't a moral panic about women's safety on the streets right now, Sabina may not have been reported on at all."

How much does race come into play?

In the UK, the majority of missing people are white, but statistics for people of colour can be disproportionate. Black people, for example, account for 14% of all cases in England and Wales between 2019 and 2020, despite representing only 3% of the population. And yet, many have spoken out lately about feeling let down by the police because of race.

Evidence Joel, whose teenage son Richard Okorogheye went missing in March, said: "The fact is that I’m an African woman with an African accent. Maybe if I was a lawyer and I was a completely different colour and my son had blue eyes I would have been taken seriously." While Mina Smallman, whose two daughters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry were murdered in a park last year, accused the police of taking 36 hours to investigate.

Speaking to the BBC at the time, she said: "I knew instantly why they didn't care. They didn't care because they looked at my daughter's address and they thought they knew who she was. 'A black woman who lives on a council estate'."

This idea of white people’s cases being taken more seriously is currently being referenced internationally regarding the tragic death of Gabby Petito. While her large social media following meant her story was always going to attract more attention, many are pointing out that 710 Indigenous people have gone missing in Wyoming (the same area Petito disappeared in) between 2011 and 2020, and Indigenous women are 6.4 times more likely to be killed - but their deaths receive the least coverage in the state. None of this takes away from the awfulness of Petito’s story, but it does again raise the issue of Missing White Woman Syndrome.

"That's often particularly true in national media," explains Dr Green. "They cater for the nation, and the vast majority of the nation is white. So, there's a bias in that already. In local news you see more variety because they also cater for their demographic.

"The media always have their angle. And if you have people with more complex circumstances, which a lot of missing people have, like mental health issues, and aren't as 'angelic', their stories aren't told."

Of course, every single story is different. Victims can't be easily compared – and shouldn't be. Even in Sabina’s story, it’s important to remember that as her body was discovered the day after she went missing, there wasn't much time for a big police and media campaign, which would have translated into higher news coverage. As cynical as it sounds, it's a relevant factor.

At the same time, we also can't expect the same level of coverage for every missing person's case. Over 98,000 adults are reported missing to the police every year (75% are found or return within 24 hours) and it would be impossible to report on all of them. Often, families also want to maintain anonymity too, which should be respected.

But it is important to shine a light on any possible examples of Missing White Woman Syndrome and to keep calling out inequality – whether it’s perpetuated by the press, the public or the police. It is indisputable that every woman should have the right to feel safe going about their daily lives.

Steps are being made in the right direction: London Mayor Sadiq Khan has called violence against women and girls an 'epidemic' and is now calling for misogyny to be a hate crime. While campaign group Reclaim These Streets is fighting to ensure legislation, education and community action are changed so that no woman is ever asked to 'text me when you get home' again.

But if the very worst does happen to a woman, then regardless of her skin colour or background or class, we should expect equal mobilisation and outcry from the public. It’s the very least they deserve.

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