Remembering Zara Aleena

Gabrielle, Youth Board member

Youth Board member Gabrielle remembers Zara Aleena a year on from her death

A few weeks ago I went to a vigil to remember the life of Zara Aleena a year on from her death. I felt a range of emotions on this day but mostly I marvelled at the way a community can be connected for many different reasons and still band together in the wake of tragedy. This blog is a way of working through the many thoughts I had on the day and how it relates to my place as a woman against gender-based violence and as a part of Tender.

On 25th June 2023, I went to a vigil for Zara Aleena. It was organised by her aunt, with the help of the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC), VAWG activists, and other parts of the GLA. It was a profound community event and something I had never experienced before.

My first experience of a vigil was for Sarah Everard around two years ago while I was still at university up north. These vigils were happening across the country, and served as a stark reminder of how little has changed since the Take Back the Night Activists of the 1970s.

On the 26th of June 2022, Zara Aleena was sexually assaulted and murdered as she was walking home in Ilford, East London. In December, it was revealed in court that she suffered 46 separate injuries and that her abduction, sexual assault, and murder lasted just nine minutes.

She had been walking home after seeing a friend. She had been around 15 minutes from her front door when she crossed paths with her attacker at 2am. She received two missed calls, and by the time she received a text from her friend saying, ‘Home hun?’, she had already been attacked.

Zara Aleena was 35 years old and walking home.

On 25th June 2023, around 150 people met in Valentine’s Park to commemorate a year since Zara’s murder.

My first experience of a vigil was for Sarah Everard around two years ago while I was still at university up north. These vigils were happening across the country, and served as a stark reminder of how little has changed since the Take Back the Night Activists of the 1970s. Whilst Sarah’s death was horrific, many argued it overshadowed other victims in the conversation on gender based violence. Most of whom are women of ethnic minority backgrounds.

I think this is why I found the vigil for Zara so impactful. Sarah Everard’s vigil was a nationwide event, while the vigil for Zara Aleena was a real gathering of the community. This major difference brought a feeling of connection, while also intensifying the emotions of the day.

Various news outlets were in attendance and, at first, remained focused on capturing Sadiq Khan. I worried initially that this would be turned into a political opportunity. I was gladly proven wrong. The vigil began with speeches from VAWG activists and family members, as well as the Mayor. Khan did not let this day be used for political clout, instead he made sure to acknowledge that this was a grassroots effort. He knew he was a guest in the precarious, vulnerable, and politically and emotionally charged space, but understood his responsibility as an elected leader to address the issues at hand:

‘We have in our country an epidemic of violence against women and girls, and my gender, my sex, is responsible.’ – Sadiq Kahn.

The words from Zara’s family were most impactful for me. Her aunt, Farah Naz, talked most on behalf of her relatives, but seeing the remaining family members stood holding each other tightly, bonded by their grief was an intense image to reconcile. Zara’s name had been in the news for a year, her face was on the signs attendants carried throughout the vigil, but you truly understand a person’s impact and legacy by their loved ones. The sight of her family reminded us that she was not just another statistic in the large number of victims of gender-based violence, but a person with a history, with a community and who did not deserve her gruesome fate.

‘But it’s also important not just to grieve; it’s important to protest and that’s what this is. It’s multi-faceted; it’s saying ‘we won’t have this anymore and we support this family and this community that have fallen to the ground… Zara’s not the first women to be brutally murdered on our streets, and you know what, she’s not the last.’ – Farah Naz

When the speeches finished, 150 of us dressed in white, some carrying signs with Zara’s face, left Valentine’s Park. We walked in silence, gained some acknowledgement and solidarity from onlookers, and finished Zara’s walk home.

It was hard to ignore the cameras, and though I had an initial distaste at the idea that this tragedy would be turned into a trivial segment of the news cycle, I knew I had to drop my cynicism and acknowledge the importance of this story being broadcast. The words printed on all t-shirts and signs were Never Forgotten. My trust in the media is never one hundred per cent, but I still believe it serves a necessary purpose in this day in age to make things last. The involvement of high profile news outlets, politicians and activists was necessary to make sure Zara continued to be remembered.

It is real life instances like this that remind us why the work of Tender is so important. Why tackling gender-based violence from a young age is necessary for real systemic change. Zara was not the first and will not be the last. Additionally, I was pleasantly surprised by the male turnout too. It gave some hope that Tender’s message, that gender-based violence is a problem for all genders, is being adopted at least by some. Although there was a range in ages at the vigil, young people were the smallest demographic. Young people must be incorporated in social efforts for change to happen. Tender’s commitment to reach young people and teach them how to navigate relationships, and to combat misogyny, are all necessary to reduce the number of men like Zara’s attacker in the long term.

The vigil was emotionally conflicting in a few ways. I felt proud of the achievement in coordinating the event and the sincerity and turnout of the event. But you could not remove the feeling of despondence over the tragic circumstances that led us here.

I felt connected to this vigil because any one of us could have been Zara. Unfortunately horrific cases like this will happen again, but it is only through the work of organisations like Tender that we can plausibly foresee some kind of future in which cases like Zara Aleena’s are eradicated.