Janey is the lead singer for UK feminist punk band Dream Nails.
"All girls to the front! I'm not kidding!" screams Kathleen Hanna, front woman of Bikini Kill and feminist punk priestess. Back in the '90s USA punk scene, "girls to the front" was a demand for women's safety against serious violence. In the documentary The Punk Singer, ", a young woman at a show proclaims, "I'm sick to death of going to gigs and coming back with bruises and broken ribs. It's not fair, cause lads get everything. They're allowed to do what they want. And we have to stand in the background."
But does it have to get to violence before we can claim our space? Well, it depends on your definition of violence. As women, we know that all public - and even private - spaces are dominated by men. Taking space is a radical act of liberation, wherever you are: from stopping men who interrupt you in conversations or work meeting, to Sisters Uncut reclaiming a women's prison and turning it into a community centre.
I front an all-female punk band, Dream Nails, and I make a point of saying "girls to the front" at every performance. It's in honour of our riot-grrrl fore-sisters, but really we mean men to the back. We sing for everyone, we perform for everyone, but we write for all women and non-binary people who are fighting every day under patriarchy - i.e. a world that is controlled by, caters to and centres the male experience. When we throw out all our energy onstage, we are throwing it at our sisters. Our shows are spaces for healing, expression and relief.
It's no exaggeration to say that after every single show, girls and young women thank us for creating a space where they feel like they can just dance and have fun together and we will fight to maintain that for as long as we're performing. A woman who came to one of our shows for the first time recently messaged us:
"I just wanted to tell you that you were all amazing and you had so much energy. Women at the front was such a good idea because I felt way more comfortable and I could enjoy myself freely thanks to you, you gave me a lot of joy and power, and for once it was a true radical act, not just words. You're amazing musician witches."
But for me, Girls to the Front is about more than safety. Sure, that's part of it, but it's primarily about challenging male domination. We don't spend hours channelling trauma and anger and revolution into our music just to stand and sing it in front of (usually drunk) men – we want to sing it into the eyes of our sisters. We don't spend years of our lives unlearning patriarchal bullshit, performing for the male gaze and tiptoeing around male violence in order to worry about men feeling uncomfortable when we tell them to stand at the back. We didn't spend years at shows growing up – unable to see, shoved, groped and violently pushed – to recreate the same feelings in our female fans. No.
We don't want all-women gigs, that's not the point, and we don't want no-men gigs. We want our man fans to take an active part in stepping back and giving space – which is a small but vital act of allyship in our liberation – and it's really not much to ask. But right now it's not happening without us asking. If we don't set the rules of the space, even at a feminist punk show, men will assume the space is theirs – and will come right up to the front, and stand in front of short women, and dominate.
It's not just something that should only happen in the punk scene either, Princess Nokia is bringing it to hip hop, stating that “A Princess Nokia show is this place where girls can…take the space in the way that men and the brotherhood do” and it should extend way beyond subcultures to become a routine exercise in respecting space in daily life.
Hopefully one day we won't have to say it any more. Hopefully one day we'll live in a world where male entitlement no longer exists, and where women don't have to mentally juggle their wants and needs (from dancing up front to travelling home alone late) against their personal safety.
But until that world is built from our blood, sweat and bare hands: girls to the front.