Heksennacht: Why women in the Netherlands march to reclaim the night on May 19
Since the 1970s, women across the Netherlands have rallied together on May 19 - also known as heksennacht - to reclaim the night. But where does this tradition come from, and is it still honoured today? Let's dive into all this and more as we explore the history of the Dutch tradition of heksennacht.
How Take Back the Night inspired the Dutch heksennacht movement
The first demonstrations organised by the international non-profit organisation Take Back the Night took place in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Los Angeles in the early 1970s, as women demanded resources and safety for women, protested violent “snuff” pornography films, and marched following the murder of microbiologist Susan Alexander Speeth.
It didn’t take long for this political movement to spread, and in 1976 women from around the world met in Brussels for an international conference to discuss unsafe conditions for women. This conference was followed by what is generally regarded as the first organised demonstration against violence against women.
What started as an American movement has grown significantly over the decades, and has become a well-established feminist movement with events and marches taking place all around the world. The original Take Back the Night movement has also inspired similar local and national traditions - such as heksennacht (“witches’ night”) in the Netherlands.
Heksennacht: Marching for women’s rights on May 19
While Take Back the Night is an international organisation, the movement inspired heksennacht in the Netherlands: a feminist movement and annual demonstration against sexual violence against women, founded by Women against Sexual Violence Amsterdam.
Heksennacht was also modelled after the German tradition of Walpurgisnacht, which is observed annually on April 30. But when heksennacht was founded in the Netherlands, April 30 was the date of Queen’s Day and the birthday of Queen Beatrix. Instead, the Dutch looked to secure another date that didn’t coincide with other public holidays or Christian holidays.
Ultimately, organisers settled on May 19 - supposedly the birthday of one of the movement’s key activists.
The Netherlands’ first heksennacht
The first heksennacht took place in 1978 across over 10 different Dutch cities, including Nijmegen, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Groningen, and The Hague. Under the slogan, Vrouwen Eisen de Straat Terug (“women reclaim the night”), over 8.000 women took to the streets to raise awareness about the strength of women and put an end to the assumption that, at night, streets are a male domain.
Those taking part in the march sang the Heksenlied - a Dutch song that refers to medieval practices in which women were accused of malicious witchcraft - and wielded various banners and torches.
Heksennacht traditions today
These days, heksennacht marches don’t play as significant a role in the Dutch women’s movement, but some locally-organised demonstrations will still take place on May 19 every year.
Instead, women from across the country rally together on March 8 - International Women's Day - to march for women rights around the world.