DAY EIGHT: On the Appropriateness of Cultural Representations of Mass Violence Against Women

How can the experiences of women affected by sexual violence from war be highlighted through art without further reproducing and perpetuating trauma? Projects like Thinking of You (Alketa Xhafa Mripa) provide a powerful example.

Image above: Thinking of You by Alketa Xhafa-Mripa. Reproduced by permission of the artist

Maria Alina Asavei

Can we represent or commemorate victims of gender-based mass violence as part of processes of justice without objectifying and retraumatising women? These are the dilemmas faced by transitional justice scholars and practitioners. 

The experiences of the women affected by armed conflicts and political violence are often overlooked in the official institutions of remembrance and transitional justice processes of commemoration and symbolic reparations. This happens on various grounds, among which, the most unsettling takes for granted the claim that “sexual violence has always been part of the war” and is therefore unremarkable and unworthy of attention. At the same time, the survivors of mass violence have often felt reluctant or unwilling to evoke memories of their past sexual abuses and other forms of aggression, finding it too painful to relive traumatic pasts, even in the name of retributive justice. 

The fact that these memories of sexual violence cannot be tackled openly and publicly is not surprising, and, as the artist Judy Chicago asked rhetorically, ‘how open can you be when it is shrouded in shame?’ Yet, the preference in many legal traditions for individual memory in re-establishing truth and justice (the traditional rules of evidence in transitional justice focus on individual representation, testimony and memory) offers less space for collective representations and collective memory (forms which might prevent trauma for those women survivors of mass violence). 

Equally worrisome is that some cultural representation (especially in the film industry) does harm rather than support the process of redress because they keep reproducing a pattern of cultural memory that displays women victims of mass sexual violence by exposing nakedness, body parts and romanticizing the relationship between victim and perpetrator. Such art cannot count as a form of symbolic reparation. Nor does it establish relations across difference. These representations fail to pay respect to the women who suffered violence and even risk re-traumatizing them.

For these reasons, these art pieces do nothing to highlight women’s agency in political, economic and social transformation within post-conflict societies.

This does not mean that all artistic/cultural responses to mass violence against women are inappropriate. There are several instances of collaborative, participatory and collective artistic memory work that has the ability to foster communities of remembrance beyond gender, biographical and national borders divides. Participatory and/or collaborative artistic memory work has the merit of enabling witnesses and post-witnesses to collectively experience the women victims ’painful past without relying on the proclivities of the gaze alone. At the same time, the collective representations of painful memories, displayed by both witnesses and post-witnesses, can trigger a critical collective memory whose cultural materializations did not employ the sexualization and objectification of women and girls. One instance of this collaborative cultural memory is the huge installation Thinking of You (conceptualized by the artist Alketa Xhafa-Mripa in Kosovo, 2015). 

Image of the artist Alketa Xhafa Mripa inside her installation Thinking of You. Reproduced by permission of the artist

Thinking of You commemorates the victims of mass sexual violence focusing on the public’s participation as crucial in the artwork’s final form and meaning. Every person from the public is at the same time a participant to the artistic memory event by donating skirts or dresses which have been eventually hung on elongated washing lines on the main soccer stadium in Pristina.

Still above taken from the video ‘Thinking of You’. Click on it to watch the full video.

The artistic memory event gathered dresses and skirts not only from the people of Kosovo but from people from all over the world, who had no biographical ties with the victims of the former Yugoslavia. The ravishing documentary about the production of the unprecedented installation Thinking of You reveals the extraordinary participation of the post-witnesses of mass violence against women. The documentary titled The Making of Thinking of You by Anna di Lellio and Fitim Shala displays the campaign of collecting dresses and skirts all over Kosovo and several interviews with the participants to this commemorative event. 

The same type of participatory memory work meant to empower the women victims of mass violence beyond national and biographical ties emerged in Cairo during the Arab Spring (2011). What is currently known as the “blue bra stencil” commemorates an unknown Egyptian woman victim of the military police during the revolution. The violent act perpetrated by the military policemen was recorded by an amateur camera and circulated then worldwide. The footage shows a young woman severely beaten with her abaya (Islamic robe) stripped off. The viewer cannot see the woman’s face but only her clothing, including a blue bra. The cultural responses occurred immediately after the violent act ended. Many walls in Cairo started to reveal the blue bra stencil in various designs. The same feminine garment appeared online worldwide as Facebook profile pictures.

Artwork by Bahia Shehab done in memory of a Muslim protester who was dragged by Egyptian soldiers from Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising in Egypt. Source: creative commons

The cultural memory of the act of mass violence against women in Cairo exceeds both the border of Egypt and the borders of its initial meaning being associated with other sets of political and social concerns. To give only several examples, the “Blue Bra” is represented and disseminated in the political cartoons of the Brazilian artist Carlos Latuff; in the pieces of textile art created by the Jordanian designer Naser Al-Khalylah and in the political video posters disseminated online by the anonymous artist collective Operation Blue Bra Girl. 

Maria-Alina Asavei is Assistant Professor at the Institute of International Studies, Charles University Prague and curator of contemporary art. Drop her an email at maria.asavei@fsv.cuni.cz

DAY SEVEN: The Zanana Ensemble – Women Perform Against Fascist Regimes

The Zanana Emsemble’s performance, “Zanana ka Zamana” (The Era is feminine) is a collective act of resistance against the Citizenship Amendment Act in India through expressions of solidarity using songs, poetry and conversations.

Picture above: Zanana Ensemble Performing in Shaaheen Bagh. Credits: Meghna. Reproduced by permission.

Shwetha Gopalakrishnan

The proposition of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in India exacerbated the vulnerabilities of marginalized sections like Muslims, Dalits, queers, transgender persons, womxn, people from nomadic communites etc. by attacking their citizenship. The marginalized were more precarious than usual as they did not have proper documentation to “prove” their citizenship. Muslim women and womxn, queers from different communities in solidarity registered their protests by claiming public spaces. This in itself was a reclaiming of the spirit of the constitution and its guarantees of equal citizenship and democratic ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity and the spirit of standing against violence and discrimination.

The Zanana Ensemble came together amidst these protests in January 2020 with a play “Zanana ka Zamana”(The Era is feminine) as an act of expressing solidarity through songs, poetry and conversations. Deeply inspired by the resilience of the movement and in an attempt to echo its strength and struggles, Theatre practitioner Mallika Taneja gave an open call for Twenty Women to be a part of a play on “resistance and the everyday” in an attempt to try and bring together an army of women on stage and to speak to the women who were sitting in the protest sites. Despite the movement being led by women, she recalls that:

The stages were largely occupied by men as there are very few women performers. It annoyed me that the ears that were listening were women’s and the voices that were speaking were men’s .

Theatre practitioner Mallika Taneja

Since it was felt that this was not the space for a singular body and that the body on stage must reflect the watching body, an attempt was made to have multitude of voices and bodies as a collective on stage.

However there were differences with respect to class, religion, etc between the watching body and the body on stage.  The attempt was to look at ways of starting conversations with these women (in protest sites) without seizing too much of their space.  The Ensemble was not created by auditions but by an open call and was a multi identity group that comprised of womxn from different religion, ethnicity, sexuality etc. The members of the team chose to be a fluid Ensemble rather than a single piece for the purposes of long term resistance. This meant that available members would get together for performances and would join in whenever they could which gave space for rest and recovery within the team amidst constant resistance.    

Picture above: Poster for Zanana Ensemble performances. Credits: Meghna. Reproduced by permission.

“We didn’t want to make a play about the pits and falls of CAA, since there was no need to educate these people. I felt like these women sleep here, wake up here, get tired here, menstruate here, go back, eat, their children are here, even if they get a flu they are here. This is an everyday protest and resistance much like our lives- the walks we take, the way we step out of our house. How women resist on a daily level and keep making space through everyday resistance.”

Mallika who also directed the performances, on her interest in everydayness of resistance.

It is for this reason that the performances addressed the “everyday” and the “mundane” of resistance and primarily spoke to women through themes like dreaming, sleeping, stepping out of the house in the context of CAA. The origin of the piece is from a children’s book called “The world belongs to you” which was translated as “Ye Duniya Hamari hai” (This world is ours). “The language of the play was kept simple since it catered to a colloquial audience and catchy popular words with sounds were used to make the script interactive and receptive” shares Rajesh Nirmal who wrote many poems for the play. As far as the songs are concerned, a Hindi translation of Bob Dylan’s “The answer is blowing in the wind” was used. Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poem “Hum Dekhengey”(we shall see) which had a history of being used to resist fascist regimes had become the anthem of the movement.  It was being banned by many institutions in the country and thus was used as a peaceful tool of resistance in the play. Many poems were written by the team internally and many songs were chosen collectively. The play was improvised according to changing contexts that the movement survived, for instance the state sponsored pogrom in North East Delhi, police violence etc.   

Picture above: Art Made By Khushboo from the Ensemble. Reproduced by permission.

Still from video: Zanana Ensemble performing at Shaaheen Bagh. Credits: Meghan. Click to view full video.
Still from video: Zanana Ensemble performing at Hauz Rani protest Site. Credits: Meghna. Click to view full video.

The performances were received with overwhelming love and warmth in various sites. There was reciprocity and mutual give and take of emotions and imaginations around resistance which captured it as a space of solidarity. Aman Mohammadi, one of the actors in the play commented that “It was a dialogue, collaboration, an exchange of energies, hope, vision, camaraderie and strength. Women of all ages chanted slogans with us. In that moment we were together. There was the magic of female bodies-a sea of women together.” The protest performances took place at a time when there were increasing anxieties, fear, trauma, grief, shock and violence in the country and so creating a space of solidarity, hope, resilience, strength, care and love was an important political act of resistance in itself to uphold the constitutional ideals. The Ensemble has now survived almost a year of togetherness.

Shwetha Gopalakrishnan is a Bharatanatyam dancer. She is a part of Zanana Ensemble and the cofounder of “Nritically Yours”. She has pursued her masters in Sociology from Ambedkar University and her Bachelors in Psychology from Lady Shri Ram College for Women. She currently works as a Mitigation Specialist in National Law University Delhi.

DAY ONE: Introducing the 16 Days Blogathon 2020!

Welcome to our annual blogathon to mark the global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign.

Photo: UN Women/Patrick Reoka licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Welcome to our annual blogathon to mark the global  16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign. We are now in our fourth year of bringing together voices from civil society, academia, art, activism, and government around the world as our contribution to this ongoing struggle. The blogathon marks a continuing collaboration between GenderEd at the University of Edinburgh, the Australian Human Rights Institute at UNSW Sydney and Ambedkar University, Delhi

Gender-based violence – including domestic violence – is rooted in gender inequality, the abuse of power and harmful norms and cultural practices. One in three women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence.

We know that during times of crisis and instability, the threat of GBV increases. In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic has had wide ranging consequences globally and has exacerbated economic and social inequalities. The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have also thrown into sharp relief the longstanding hidden pandemic of gender based violence.  And it has underscored the grim feminist insight that ‘home’ can be a dangerous, sometimes deadly, place for women and girls – and for people with marginalised gendered identities.  As the UN Secretary General has noted:

“Accompanying the crisis has been a spike in domestic violence reporting, at exactly the time that services, including rule of law, health and shelters, are being diverted to address the pandemic.”

Gender-based violence – including domestic violence – continues to be an urgent and intractable issue that blights the lives of women and girls and diminishes their rights. Along with the writers whose work you will read over the coming days, and the more than 6,000 organisations who run 16 Days campaigns across 187 countries every year, we are united in our commitment to women’s equality and share a desire to see a world free from sexual and gender-based violence.

From Monday 25 November (the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women) to 10 December (Human Rights Day), we will be posting blogs that explore pressing issues in gender-based violence. 

Through their blogs, we travel from Scotland to South Korea; from Australia to South Africa via India and beyond. We see how gender-based violence exists in all spheres – from past to emerging and ongoing conflicts, historic injustices, in houses and on university campuses, in villages and cities. And increasingly, overwhelmingly, in virtual spaces. 

Our remarkable contributors look at digital violence and resistance; they interrogate the multiple meanings of home and the role of art and design based practices to rethink gendered space.  We report on ten years of ‘counting dead women’ in the UK one of the first femicide censuses in the world. And we learn about the power of art  (visual, performance, music and dance) to resist, expose and survive gender-based violence; to provoke a reckoning and to seek justice and change

As well as artists and performers, this year we have amplified student voices and we are delighted that our contributors in 2020 include current and recent students of AUD Women and Gender Studies, Social Design and Sociology, Edinburgh College of Art and SOAS,UK .

We will be posting updates on Twitter from @UoE_genderED and @HumanRightsUNSW and look forward to sharing these stories with you over the next 16 days. We hope that you will share them further.  

Opening our 2020 blogathon is Jo Clifford  – playwright, trans performer and activist – and creator of The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven  an extraordinary piece of work which has been transforming lives – and provoking hate for ten years. She writes about the experiences faced by the Brazilian production in a country which is the most dangerous in the world for trans people.

Signed, Co-curators of the 16 Days blogathon

  • Fiona Mackay, Director genderED, University of Edinburgh
  • Louise Chappell, Director Australian Human Rights Institute, University of New South Wales
  • Rukmini Sen, Director Center for Publishing, Ambedkar University Delhi
  • Aerin Lai, student editor, University of Edinburgh
  • Jessica Shao, student editor, University of New South Wales