DAY FIVE: Confronting Gender-based Violence in Ancient Rome: The Sexual Violation of Pubescent Boys

In this post, Ulrike Roth explores evidence from the ancient Roman world to raise questions about our preparedness to confront the issue of sexual violence against children, then and now.

Ulrike Roth

Featured Image: Warren Cup, c. 15 BCE–15 CE; Jerusalem. © The Trustees of the British Museum, London/UK (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Although only recently given fuller scholarly attention, gender-based violence was a given in ancient Roman society over the long millennium of its existence, from before the middle of the first millennium BCE to the middle of the first millennium CE. Take the sexual violation of male teenagers in the context of slavery. Deeply disturbing from a modern vantage point, sexual interactions between free adult men and enslaved pubescent boys are repeatedly reported in the surviving sources as forced upon the youngsters, with a focus on youths up to 14 years of age. While taken for granted by many, not everyone agreed.  In fact, despite its prevalence we can find ancient voices exposing and condemning the practice as exploitation.

In the 60s CE, Seneca, the former tutor and advisor of the Roman Emperor Nero, publicly criticised the sexual violation of boys by their enslavers:

Another, who serves the wine, must dress like a woman and wrestle with his advancing years; he cannot get away from his boyhood; he is dragged back to it; and though he has already acquired a soldier’s figure, he is kept beardless by having his hair smoothed away or plucked out by the roots, and he must remain awake throughout the night, dividing his time between his master’s drunkenness and his lust; in the chamber he must be a man, at the feast a boy.

Seneca, Moral Letters 47.7

Elsewhere, Seneca refers to the abused as ‘luckless boys’, and calls their abuse ‘shameful treatment’ (95.24). A wall painting from a dining room in the ancient city of Pompeii, in southern Italy, likely visualises this ‘treatment’ of enslaved boys for sexual purposes: while three servants assist various dinner guests in the foreground, another, possibly North African boy, appears embraced by an adult figure, seated in the centre-right at the back of the room.

Wall painting from the House of the Triclinium in Pompeii (V, 2, 4), 50–79 CE.
Courtesy of: Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (Naples/Italy), via Wikimedia Commons.

The overlap between the serving function of boys at banquets and their exploitation for sexual purposes is powerfully brought out in full-size sculptures displayed in many an elite Roman home. Intended to appear sexually alluring, the naked ‘dumb waiter’ cast in bronze – such as the statute known by its find-spot as the ‘Xanten Youth’ – underscored the commodification of enslaved boys who could be forced to satisfy their enslavers’ every desire. The tension between Seneca’s critique and these artistic representations that catered to the enslaver’s sexualised gaze is unmistaken.

‘Xanten Youth’, c. 50 BCE–100 CE (Xanten/Germany); without serving tray.
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Antikensammlung / Johannes Laurentius (CC NC-BY-SA)

What makes approaching this material especially tricky for the modern scholar seeking to identify gender-based violence in the ancient Roman world is the fact that same-sex relations between males of different ages were not in themselves frowned upon in antiquity, particularly in culturally Greek contexts, and that they were regularly consensual in nature. Indeed, there is no reason to think that all or perhaps even most of these relationships were framed by the coercion of the younger male. A prime example often cited by modern scholars for such a consensual relationship is that between the Roman Emperor Hadrian and the much younger Antinoos, a youth from Bithynia (in modern Turkey), with whom the Emperor slept. Known for his love of Greek practices, Hadrian even publicly idolised Antinoos, and deified him after his premature death in 130 CE, aged 19.

Relief portrait of Antinoos (on a modern slab), c. 130 CE; Louvre (Paris/France).
Courtesy of: C. Raddato (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Much of the relevant evidence for studying gender-based violence is therefore open to different interpretations – from consensus to abuse. This makes pinpointing occurrences of sexual violence difficult. But history books and museum exhibits ignore these uncomfortable ambiguities when they only talk about Antinoos as the Emperor’s lover. They ignore the signs that he might well have been the victim of what we would now call sexual abuse. Could a provincial boy from Bithynia really have said no to the Emperor’s advances? Could abusive dynamics explain his mysterious death in the Nile, possibly by suicide? We don’t have a shred of evidence from Antinoos to know what he felt.

He shares a mute and muted destiny along with the ranks of enslaved individuals whose voices we just don’t hear. But when privileging a consensual interpretation of Antinoos’ sexual interaction with the most powerful man of his day, we are only listening out for one side of the story.

The same holds for the imagery on the Warren Cup that heads this blog. What are we witnessing? Male homosexual love-making? Perhaps even a consensual sexual act between a slaver and a boy enslaved to him? This has been the view of several modern scholars. What do visitors to the British Museum who see the Cup make of it? If slavery defined the two figures’ relationship, how can a focus on a consensual reading be justified?

How, to ask the question more broadly, is one to talk about this kind of Roman evidence with individuals who have experienced sexual violence if we marginalise in our interpretations the very real possibility, even probability, that sexual violence drove many interactions between enslaver and enslaved in the Roman world?

Confronting the more disturbing settings that lurk behind some of the most aesthetically pleasing relics from the ancient Roman world is not about ignoring the many other interpretative options, to pass anachronistically judgement on a dead society; it’s about contributing to a debate that we, today, must have. Trying to uncover the tracks of abusers is, after all, the same challenging task today. Acknowledging the ambiguities in the ancient evidence, and listening more carefully to the signs of abuse in it, helps to ingrain in our mindsets the kind of sensitivised attitude that is so essential in identifying, and combating, sexual violence today.

Author’s Bio:

UIrike Roth is an Ancient Historian, researching and teaching at the University of Edinburgh. She specialises in the study of slavery, primarily in the ancient Roman world, and has recently directed a 3-year project on child slavery in the Roman Empire, funded by the Leverhulme Trust: ‘Enslaved childhoods in the Roman world’.

DAY FOUR: Invisible Impact: Gender-based Violence and the Sikh Women’s Alliance 20 years on

A conversation with Balvinder Kaur Saund who has been at the frontline of activism within the UK’s Sikh community for over two decades.

Balvinder Kaur Saund and Zubin Mistry

Balvinder Kaur Saund has been at the frontline of activism within the UK’s Sikh community for over two decades. “They don’t want their gurdwara tainted with the words domestic violence, ‘honour’-based violence, female infanticide,” she explains. “They say to me, ‘It’s in the other communities, it’s not in our community. Why are you making us look bad?’”. 

But Saund knows these problems exist inside, not just outside, her community. Underlying them is a misogyny that endures even as times have supposedly changed. Centuries ago, she reflects, some families resorted to burying their daughters alive. Then modern technology enabled sex-selective abortions while richer families still attempt to use reproductive technologies to get the son they want. These are the most extreme expressions of a preference for boys that persists to this day. Saund is not surprised whenever she belatedly learns about the births of girls almost as an afterthought. “If it had been a boy,” she notes, “I would have had a phone call, I would have had ladoo, I would have an invitation to the party, an invitation to the gurdwara – and they would announce it on Punjabi radio!” Women’s lives are still devalued.

 But groups like the London-based Sikh Women’s Alliance (SWA) galvanize women to tackle the deep-rooted attitudes and structures that fuel gender-based violence and constrain communities from tackling it. Originally launched in 2001 by a male-based Sikh studies group, Saund and four other women quickly took over the reins because “we didn’t want men to tell us how to run the group”.

Video above: Interview with Balvinder Saud (part 1)
Video above: Interview with Balvinder Saud (part 2)

Founded to empower, inspire and educate women, the SWA is a cross between a support group, social network and consciousness-raising organisation. At monthly meet-and-greets the group holds workshops on everything from emotional well-being to financial independence. If it’s somebody’s birthday, they’ll bring along food and everyone has a song and a dance. Each year on International Women’s Day they celebrate achievements of ‘Sikh Women of Substance’ like Preet Gill, the first female Sikh MP, and Jasvinder Sanghera. SWA conferences have addressed the sexual exploitation of South Asian women and the silence that isolates women in difficult and dangerous circumstances.

With a wealth of experience as a local councillor and magistrate as well as community activist, Saund knows those circumstances all too well. Working out of a safe room at the gurdwara, she has used her know-how to direct desperate women to domestic violence groups and navigate them through the court system. She is hopeful the SWA really has had an “invisible impact” that is not easily recorded. But she also recognises how challenging it is for women to leave violent situations. Like many people at the front line, she knows the pandemic has only made things worse.

Gender-based violence is, of course, not unique to Sikh communities. Far from it. As Saund puts it, “We are just a reflection of the wider world.” But she also has little time for the kind of hand-wringing that inhibits talking about the specific challenges of tackling problems within particular communities. In her estimation Sikh women have lost out because the police and other agencies become complacent if communities like hers “don’t make much noise”. Women’s trust in the police has long been an issue. That trust has hit “rock bottom”, Saund fears, following the terrible circumstances of Sarah Everard’s murder and the police’s much criticised response.

But reticence within her community is also a problem. She once overheard a group of men point her out as the person who was going round breaking up marriages. “Excuse me gentlemen,” she responded, “if you treated your daughters-in-law like your daughters, they would not come to me for help”. The loud energy that typically greets perceived slights against the religious book contrasts with the deafening silence when a woman from the community is raped. Saund is endlessly frustrated that the gender equality promoted by the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, gets spouted in sermons, but is all too rarely put into practice.

Community leadership is a case in point. “The men like to hog the seats”, Saund explains. One or two women might be  put in charge of the kitchen for langar. Saund has long advocated for targets on national councils and local gurdwara committees.

Leadership has failed to acknowledge, let alone address, a very serious issue: the abuse of women and children in gurdwaras. While the #MeToo movement has energised women to speak out against abuse – and while some religious organisations are belatedly having a painful reckoning with entrenched histories of sexual abuse – Saund is troubled that safeguarding remains a word she almost never hears uttered in gurdwaras.

Things are changing. A new women’s group, Kaur Sisters, is exploring legal routes to expose abuse. Many people within her community “love [their] children no matter what gender they are”. She sees plenty of high-flying younger women gaining an education and securing financial independence. But many have prospered precisely by “reaching out into the mainstream”. This is one reason why Saund is more pessimistic when she considers how much her community has truly changed. “I would have liked to say after twenty years,” she says ruefully, “that we’ve had an impact, a big impact, but I’m afraid there’s no way I can say that we’ve done that…the community still digs in its heels and refuses to accept problems are there”.

What would she have done differently if she could start over again? “We have more or less become a support group for women now,” she ponders, “but I would have liked us to be more of a group where we pick up our banners too”. Women’s support for one another is essential. But, looking back, Saund‘s advice to young women willing to “pick up the gauntlet and carry on” is clear: “Be loud and make yourself heard”.

Balvinder Kaur Saund is the Chair of the Sikh Women’s Alliance. A former local councillor in Redbridge, London, between 2006 and 2014, she has also served as a magistrate. In 2013 she was profiled in the inaugural iteration of the BBC 100 Women series. This blog is based on a conversation between Balvinder Saund and Zubin Mistry (University of Edinburgh) in October 2021.

DAY TWO: Where it all began

Almost 50 years on, Anne Summers writes about the opening of Elsie Women’s Refuge in 1974 (Australia).

Anne Summers

It is almost impossible to fathom that in just 27 months it will be 50 years since we opened Elsie Women’s Refuge.  In March 1974 a rowdy group of feminists in the inner-Sydney neighbourhood of Glebe broke into an abandoned house, which serendipitously bore the nameplate Elsie (many houses in Australia used to have names). We changed the locks, declared squatters’ rights, and opened Australia’s first modern women’s refuge. As luck would have it, the adjoining house was also unoccupied, so we smashed our way in there as well, giving us two tiny cottages to operate from. It took three nerve-wracking days before the first woman and her kids showed up. We had opened the refuge under the most precarious of circumstances: our tenancy legally questionable, no funds, very little support from other sections of the women’s movement which questioned whether feminists should be providing services. And now, after much media fanfare on the need for safe housing for women and kids escaping domestic violence, no one had shown up.

Video above: Excerpt from the film ‘Brazen Hussies’ featuring Anne Summers. Reproduced with permission from writer and director Catherine Dwyer.  

We learned later of the women who had written down the phone number after hearing me interviewed by Sydney’s most notorious shock-jock radio host (who turned out to be amazingly sympathetic and kept repeating the number long after I had left the studio). After our first ‘client’ arrived, a Scottish woman and her three little boys who, to her astonishment, was given an extremely effusive welcome, we were never not full to overflowing.  

By June 1975, just fifteen months later, there were eight women’s refuges around the country, all operating on uncertain future funding. A friendly feminist who worked in the Office of Women’s Affairs in Canberra urged us to ring around the other refuges and “get some figures on how many families had come through”.

Diana Beaton, one of the volunteers who kept Elsie going for many years after that shaky start, made the calls: “Over that period, we’d sheltered 13,500 women and children. Even we were gob-smacked,” she said in a magazine interview many years later. 

Image above: Photograph taken inside a women’s refuge at Glebe, Sydney, New South Wales 1975. Source: National Archives of Australia, A6180, 2/6/75/11 

For years after I was no longer involved, I would hear stories from women who had sought sanctuary at Elsie.  Mandy Sayer, a well-known Sydney writer, tells of her mother piling into a cab with she and her brother, wearing only their pajamas, and asking to be taken to Elsie. It was a $50 cab ride. Her mother had no money but at Elsie they were welcomed, the cab was paid for, and Mandy and her family began the reset of their lives. 

Back on that first day, in March 1974, I had given countless radio and television interviews, to (always) male and often patronizing interviewers. A famous ABC journalist informed me that “nagging wives” invited such violence. Fortunately, such views were not commonly expressed (at least not to our faces). 

Our daring act in announcing that we – a bunch of 20-something students and others – were going to provide safety, succor and help in finding a new life for women and kids escaping violence, attracted scorn, curiosity, applause and a huge amount of overt sympathy and support. We were both astonished and gratified when a local men’s charitable organization, Rotary, turned up and offered practical help. They spent a weekend securing our back fence and building a playground for the kids. Joyce Mayne, a large Sydney whitegoods retailer, got on the phone – herself! – and asked what we needed. The next day a truck delivered a refrigerator, washing machine, and dryer. The locals in Westmoreland Street started dropping off clothes and other useful items. 

Image above: Women’s Liberation Calendar 1985, Women’s refuges opened 74/74. Source: Sybylla Cooperative Press and Publications Ltd

Our struggle back then was to secure funding just so we could keep going, and we did not think too much about the future.  I am certain that none of us could have contemplated a time fifty years on when there would be almost 100 refuges in NSW. Or that in 2021 a conservative state government would announce funding for a further 75 refuges designed to replace the communal style housing we started with the more appropriate ‘core and cluster’ model. This style of accommodation gives women more privacy, enables them to bring teenage boys, and pets, with them while still being able to access the support services provides by refuges.

Image above: Poster for a concert to raise money for the Elsie Refuge, 1975 featuring the women’s liberation band, Clitoris. Source: Toni Robertson and Julie Bishop / National Gallery of Australia Collection

Women’s shelters, as many prefer to call them these days, are now mainstream, supported across the political spectrum. It seems they are here to stay.

Is this what we intended? That we would have to accept that domestic and family violence would be with us forever? We probably did not articulate it clearly at the time, but I think that what we wanted was for the violence to end. Refuges were part of the plan, but they were a means to an end, never the end itself.

I don’t want to see it as failure that are almost doubling the number of shelters in NSW because we need those safe places. We need the services that help women and kids reset their lives. We need those brave and selfless shelter workers who have devoted their lives to helping other women try to leave violence behind them.

But as we move towards marking – celebrating? – 50 years since we opened Elsie, maybe we should once again be brave, break the rules, dare to imagine a future without domestic and family violence. And plan how to make it happen.

Image above: Anne Summers at Elsie Women’s Refuge

Author’s bio:

Anne Summers is an Australian feminist with a long involvement in the women’s movement. She is the author of nine books, including the ground-breaking Damned Whores and God’s Police (1975), and is currently involved in a project on how to reduce domestic and family violence.  She was one of a group of Sydney feminists who established Elsie, Australia’s first women’s refuge.

DAY TEN: ‘My pain became my beautiful testimony’: breaking the silence on the sexual abuse of girls

“There is great power in our voice.”
Nigerian author and activist Fatima Ishiaku turned her traumatic past into a memoir – and a beacon of hope for young girls like her.

Fatima Ishiaku

In our society, a lot of youthful and defenseless adolescents are victims of malicious rape. 

These streaks of sexual brutality affect them substantially, physically, psychologically and otherwise.

Such acts of violence and sexual harm turns into a route that contributes to so many other social vices and often a path to the self-destruction of these unprotected young girls if they don’t find help.

If these acts of brutality don’t get nipped in the bud, it will shatter the fabric of our society and the world at large.

Often, victims are forced and intimidated to stay mute in the face of a vicious series of violent rape. 

These threats and coercion makes it a struggle for victims to open up to anyone about such issues. And when victims finally open up, they get bullied by the people they confide in to tell their stories, an act that renders them psychologically and emotionally traumatized.

These adolescents end up getting impregnated by their rapists, a condition they find themselves unprepared for, bearing a child at an early age. Some of opt for abortion and often die in the process.

For those that survive, it becomes a psychological disorder that makes these youthful and defenseless girls find comfort in alcohol, drugs, and other social vices. Some of them even end up as school dropouts due the effect of rape and the consequences become endless.

Victims most times are very vulnerable, rude, disrespectful, and aggressive. Because of what they’ve been through their lives becomes miserable. They live in fear, hardly trusting anyone and often becoming wild. 

Look around you today – there are so many vulnerable children on our streets, many of them are drug addicts and a substantial number of them are victims of sexual abuse. As humans, we need to understand that the abused child is fighting a battle caused by a terrible experience.

Therefore, I believe “they need love not hate, help not bully and a confidant they can trust.” We need to help them discover their inner strength and God-given talent, because the event of rape makes them regard themselves as weak, useless and vulnerable. These helpless girls need the inner strength to help them fight their fears and weaknesses.

My story is a precedent of what defenseless young girls go through.

As a victim of sexual abuse, I was molested from the age of seven till I was fourteen. This is the most awful experience of my life. 

I grew up with a man I thought was my dad, not knowing he wasn’t. And he took advantage of my innocence at a very tender age.

He made my mum despise me so much that we became enemies. To him, that was the only way to make my mum not to listen to me whenever I tried telling her what I was going through.

My mum hated me so much that she had broken my head with a rod so many times, cut my vagina, and put hot chili pepper on the cuts.

She didn’t find out why a calm child like me became so stubborn or why I started running away from home from the age of 10. Whenever I returned home, she would beat me and put hot chili pepper in my eyes and on my private parts.

She only believed what her husband told her. 

When I turned 14 years old, she found out that I had been sexually assaulted by her husband. Around this time, I found out that her husband wasn’t my dad. Two years after my mum discovered her husband molested me, she couldn’t deal with it. She died, and the rape continued.

I remember trying to commit suicide so many times. 

I dropped out of school and most of the men that got to know my story called off our engagement. Whenever these men find out about my story, they say they “can’t be with a lady like me”, that I’m a “cursed child.”

This is a cross I still carry till today.

In the year 2016, in the United States of America, an American Professor heard my story and advised me to write a book about my life. 

It wasn’t a straightforward thing to do, but finally I had the courage to publish my book, which I entitled “I Called Him Dad” by Fatima Ishiaku – a book that was published in the United States.

I had to tell my painful story in my book so that society will see what abused girls go through in our society, mostly In Nigeria. 

My book is about saving the girl child and breaking the silence. It’s a very educational book based on my true-life story. “I Called Him Dad” is my painful story.

The best part is me using my painful story to help victims like myself.

There’s light at the end of the dark tunnel. 

My pain became my beautiful testimony.

Today I run a registered non-governmental organization “House of Fatima for Abused Girls Foundation”. This foundation caters to the needs of sexually abuse girls and boys in our society. I finally went back to school and now I am a graduate of Sociology from one of the best Universities in Nigeria. 

I’m using my story to help victims, to educate mothers on how they can protect their children from sexual abuse and help parents identify the signs to look out for. I emphasise the need for parents to listen to their children whenever they want to talk to them. To read the complete version of my story you can pick up my book on Amazon. Use this link: https://amzn.to/3mz5JeW

As I conclude, everyone, both old and young needs to understand that there is power in their voice and that they should never allow anybody to silence them. Speaking out will make a difference. It will expose the intent of rapists and bring to justice those that are into these acts.

  • “We say No to any kind of abuse.”
  • “We stand against gender-based violence.” 
  • “We stand against child marriage.”

Every girl child deserves an education and it is her fundamental right to be happy.

There is great power in our voice. 

You can visit our social media for more information:

Website: houseoffatima.org

Instagram: @houseoffatima_ng

Twitter: @houseoffatimang

Facebook: House of Fatima for Sexually Abused Girls

DAY EIGHT: South Africa’s Blue Dress: art as an alternative record of sexual and gender-based violence

In this post, Eliza Garnsey explores how the powerful South African artworks “The Blue Dress” provide an alternative record of women’s experiences of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

Picture above: Fig.1: Installation view of Judith Mason, The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent (The Blue Dress) (1998), triptych, inside the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Photography by Akona Kenqu (2014). 

Eliza Garnsey

Inside the Constitutional Court of South Africa hangs Judith Mason’s The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent, more commonly known as The Blue Dress (Fig. 1). The Court is a unique space by international comparison because it houses a large visual art collection developed by the court, and for the court.

In this post I explore The Blue Dress as an alternative record of women’s experiences of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV); experiences which are largely absent from the official record of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (SATRC).[1] [MF1] 

Mason created The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent (The Blue Dress) to commemorate Phila Ndwandwe and Harold Sefola who were members of the African National Congress (ANC) fighting for freedom from apartheid. They were murdered by security branch officers of the South African Police in the late 1980s. The stories of their deaths emerged during the amnesty hearings of the SATRC . 

Sefola was an ANC activist, who—along with two of his colleagues, Jackson Maake and Andrew Makupe—was abducted, tortured and murdered. During his interrogation, Sefola requested to sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica (God Bless Africa). Maake, Makupe and Sefola were electrocuted to death. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica is now the national anthem of South Africa. Sefola was the man who sang. 

Ndwandwe was a member of uMkonte weSizwe (spear of the nation, also known as MK) which was the armed wing of the ANC. She was exiled to Swaziland after being arrested in South Africa. From Swaziland, Ndwandwe was the acting commander of Natal MK activities. Ndwandwe disappeared in 1988. The SATRC investigation into her disappearance uncovered evidence against seven security branch officers who were responsible for Ndwandwe’s abduction, detention, and murder. Their testimonies led to Ndwandwe’s remains being located; her body was found with remnants of a blue plastic bag, most often cited as being fashioned into a pair of underwear, wrapped around her body. Ndwandwe was the woman who kept silent; who was silenced. 

Fig 2. Judith Mason, 1998, The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent I (The Blue Dress), found plastic bags, thread, white paint, approx. 200 × 70 × 45 cm. Constitutional Court Art Collection, Johannesburg. Photography by Ben Law-Viljoen. © Succession Judith Mason | DALRO

In response, Mason sewed a dress from blue plastic bags (Fig. 2) on the hem of which she wrote a letter to Ndwandwe: 

Sister, a plastic bag may not be the whole armour of God, but you were wrestling with flesh and blood, and against powers, against the rulers of darkness, against spiritual wickedness in sordid places. Your weapons were your silence and a piece of rubbish. Finding that bag and wearing it until you were disinterred is such a frugal, commonsensical, house-wifely thing to do, an ordinary act… At some level you shamed your captors, and they did not compound their abuse of you by stripping you a second time. Yet they killed you. We only know your story because a sniggering man remembered how brave you were. Memorials to your courage are everywhere; they blow about in the streets and drift on the tide and cling to thorn-bushes. This dress is made from some of them. Hambe kahle. Umkhonto [Go well, Spear of the Nation]. 

Judith Mason, artist

Mason uses plastic bags to emphasize Ndwandwe’s resistance to the violation of her bodily autonomy, and ultimately her life. In contrast to their material fragility, plastic bags become markers of Ndwandwe’s defiance. They are transformed from refuse into powerful sacred objects.

The form of the dress and the way in which it gestures to women’s experiences in anti-apartheid struggles is critical. The SATRC has been widely critiqued for failing to address the experiences of many women, especially in relation to the politics of SGBV. By focusing on the direct victims of gross human rights violations, the SATRC resulted in a blindness to the types of abuse predominantly experienced by women. This was compounded by the Commission’s determination that in the context of their mandate to grant amnesty for politically motivated violence, rape was not considered to be political. Although this determination was “motivated by an interest in heightened accountability for rape” it sent a problematic message about the recognition of the politics of SGBV.

The SATRC report emphasizes Ndwandwe’s modesty, dignity, and nakedness at the time of her death over and above her role as a trained political operative and her resistance to torture and rape. The Blue Dress points towards the suspected sexual violence experienced by Ndwandwe which the SATRC record failed to acknowledge; violence represented in the paintings by the imagery of the hyena tearing the dress in the dirt (FIGs. 3 and 4).

In the letter on the dress, Mason describes the plastic bag as a weapon; one which shamed Ndwandwe’s captors. The implication is that the plastic bag prevented further violence. The focus is on Ndwandwe’s resistance to victimhood, rather than her victimization—a contrast to the official record.

Fig. 3. Judith Mason, 1998, The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent II, oil on canvas, 190 × 160 cm. Constitutional Court Art Collection, Johannesburg. Photography by Ben Law-Viljoen. © Succession Judith Mason | DALRO 
Fig. 4. Judith Mason, 1998, The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent III, oil on canvas, 166 × 122 cm. Constitutional Court Art Collection, Johannesburg. Photography by Ben Law-Viljoen. © Succession Judith Mason | DALRO 

The Blue Dress comes to symbolise the many victims and survivors of SGBV whose stories remain absent from the official record. The artwork imbues plastic bags and their ubiquitous presence with symbolic meaning about “the pervasive violence enacted on women’s bodies”. Taken together, the materiality of the plastic bags and the gendered symbolism of the dress, create the possibility of an alternative record. 

The presence of The Blue Dress at the centre of South Africa’s constitutional democracy is a critical reminder of what is missing elsewhere. 

[1] The post draws on six months of participant observation fieldwork at the Court, which involved 54 interviews with people associated with the Court, including judges, law clerks, staff members, artists, and visitors, as well as visual and archival research. 

This post draws on ideas explored in The Justice of Visual Art: Creative State-Building in Times of Political Transition(CUP, 2020) and in ‘South Africa’s Blue Dress: (Re)imagining Human Rights through Art’, Angelaki 24/4 (2019) 38-51 (published here with the permission of Taylor and Francis). Free copies of the article are available here

Eliza Garnsey is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in International Relations at the University of Cambridge and a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College Cambridge. She is currently an Honorary Associate at the Centre for International Security Studies, University of Sydney. Eliza’s research focuses on art and visual culture in international relations and world politics, particularly in relation to human rights, transitional justice, and conflict. Her book, The Justice of Visual Art: Creative State-Building in Times of Political Transition (CUP, 2020), explores how art can engage and shape ideas of justice in ways which have the capacity to address identity divisions and exclusions in nations emerging from conflict.

You can follow her on Twitter @Eliza_Garnsey