DAY SIXTEEN: Lifting our voices to end violence against women: the Hummingsong choirs

The Hummingsong Choirs build “community”, bringing together women of all backgrounds and stages in life to sing, laugh, nourish their souls and build close-knit connections. The other important purpose is to extend support to those most vulnerable in the community, women and children escaping domestic violence. 

Picture above: Still from video: “Fix You” by Coldplay, performed by Hummingsong Community Choirs. Arrangement by Dorothy Horn.

Carolyn Thompson

Anna Humberstone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Hummingsong Community Choirs – a 500 strong group of women across 8 acapella choirs in Sydney and most recently Melbourne.  Hummingsong Choirs are committed to quality music making, taking their non-auditioned members on a journey of aiming high and reaching goals that the singers and often audiences never thought possible.

“It’s not just about getting together and having a good old sing.  It’s much more thoughtfully scaffolded to create an environment that takes each member on a journey that is both musically, socially and intrinsically fulfilling” said Anna.  

For Anna the key word is “community”, bringing together women of all backgrounds and stages in life to sing, laugh, nourish their souls and build close-knit connections. The other important purpose of Hummingsong Choirs is to extend support to those most vulnerable in the community, women and children escaping domestic violence.  For Anna “domestic violence bears no social class…it’s a passion of ours to continue working towards zero tolerance for violence against women.” 

For many years Hummingsong Choirs have raised awareness for the Women’s Community Shelters through fundraising at their annual concert. To date Hummingsong Choirs has raised over $200,000 for this cause.  In 2019 Hummingsong Choirs were able to take their passions of singing, community and domestic violence awareness to a world-wide audience by making the semi-finals of Australia’s Got Talent with their stirring arrangement of Somewhere Only We Know by Keane.  

“Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane, performed by Hummingsong Community Choirs at Sydney Grammar School on 21 September 2018. Accompanied by Sydney Grammar School String Sextet & Bill Risby, conducted by Melissa Kenny.

Fast forward to 2020 and the contrast from last year could not be starker. COVID-19 has brought choral singing and its many benefits to an abrupt halt.  As one Hummingsong member puts it, “not being able to sing has had an effect on my happiness, well-being and overall mental health”. The knock-on effect also means that charities such as Women’s Community Shelters who rely on fundraising through the Arts and Entertainment sector are missing out on the community funds they rely on so heavily to survive. 

In the absence of concerts and reality TV exposure, this year Anna forged ahead with a video production of Coldplay’s Fix You as their major fundraising effort.  Over 230 members individually recorded their parts which were then pieced together to create a moving arrangement.  “Singing over zoom is a poor substitute compared to the benefits of singing in choir” Anna said, however the video has managed to raise in excess of $22,700 of a $40,000 target since its mid November release.  

“Fix You” by Coldplay, performed by Hummingsong Community Choirs. Arrangement by Dorothy Horn.

Now that large gatherings at sporting and theatre events are permitted, it’s hoped that choral singing will soon follow. The life-enhancing benefits for those who love choir and the flow-on support it provides to the vulnerable are what lifts a community and makes it stronger. 


Carolyn Thompson joined Hummingsong in 2015 after the death of her mother left her longing for something to provide some comfort and happiness. Unable to read music and not feeling comfortable singing alone, Carolyn was attracted to this non-audition community choir.  She knew at her first visit she had found something very special. Hummingsong provides a welcoming, fun, challenging and inspirational space for women to come together to learn and sing beautiful songs in harmony.  The friendships, sense of belonging and “soul food” elements of choir give Carolyn so much to be thankful for. The choir also gains a greater sense of unity and purpose through their fundraising efforts for charities such as Women’s Community Shelters. 
Carolyn can’t wait for the restrictions preventing Choral singing due to COVID 19 to be lifted so she can be back with her friends doing what they love, and for the choir to continue its work raising funds to support those experiencing violence at home.

Hummingsong Community Choirs can be found at https://www.hummingsong.com.au/

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.

Welcome to the 16 Days Blogathon 2019!

Introduction to 2019 Blogathon

Welcome to our annual blogathon to mark the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign. We are now in our third year of bringing together some of the most important voices from civil society, academia and government around the world. Once again, the blogathon marks a collaboration between GenderEd at the University of Edinburgh, the Australian Human Rights Institute at UNSW Sydney and Ambedkar University, Delhi

From refugee policies putting women in danger of gender-based violence to the undermining of women’s reproductive rights at the UN, to the Counting Dead Women projects (such as in Australia, the UK and in the US), there is much to suggest that the world is as grim a place as ever for women, girls and their rights. As UN Women note,

“Violence against women is the leading cause of death and disability of women no matter their age”.

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 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 2019 (the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women) to 10 December (Human Rights Day), we will be posting blogs that explore some of the most pressing issues in gender-based violence. Our remarkable contributors look at the many ways in which gender-based violence interacts with health, trans identities, migration, sexualities and disabilities. They write about political rhetoric that invokes gender-based violence, and the promises and limits of legal systems. They write narratives and poetry, and explore the potential of thread and comic books to tell different stories – or to tell stories differently.

Through their blogs, we travel from Scotland to Myanmar, and from the Pacific to South Africa via India and beyond. We see how gender-based violence exists in all spheres – from past to emerging and ongoing conflicts, in houses and on university campuses, and in the smallest of villages to the largest of cities. It affects women and girls of all ages, of all backgrounds, from all places.

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.  

We couldn’t have asked for a better person to open our 2019 blogathon than Eve Ensler – best-selling author, playwright, anti-violence activist, and initiator of V-Day and 1 Billion Rising. In her powerful blog, Eve reflects on the crafting of her 2019 book The Apology, in which she wrote the apology that she knew she would never receive from her abuser: her father. For our first blog of the year, we are therefore delighted to introduce Eve Ensler’s piece, ‘My father never apologized for sexually abusing me. So I wrote his apology for him’ (reposted with kind permission from NBC News).

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
  • Caitlin Hamilton, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Australian Human Rights Institute, University of New South Wales
  • Natasha Dyer, PhD candidate, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh 

Day One | My father never apologized for sexually abusing me. So I wrote his apology for him.

Eve Ensler talks about her new book, the apology from her father that he could never make…

Eve Ensler

When I was five years old my father began to sexually abuse me. This went on until I was ten, and then the daily physical battery and terror began. This life of endless brutality and invasion rearranged my chemistry, forced me out of my body, repressed my ability to think and made me terrified of love.

My father never told me why he did what he did. He never explained how he became a man capable of this kind of sadism and he died without apologizing.

In recent months, I have read the accounts of several men accused of sexual violence. Their words often focused on the pain and repercussions they had experienced after being accused rather than thinking of the pain of their victims or admitting what they had done and how they had worked on themselves to understand their own histories and behavior.

It then occurred to me that I had never heard a man make an honest, thorough, public accounting of his abuse. I had never heard a man openly apologize. I wondered what it would be like to hear an apology like this, what impact it might have on me and other survivors and how it might help end the scourge of violence altogether.

And so I decided to write the apology from my father that I always needed to hear; to find the words and the language, to outline the anatomy of an apology that could possibly set me free and act as a possible blueprint for other men seeking a pathway to atonement, accountability and reckoning.

As I wrote “The Apology” I felt as though I began to hear my father’s voice. He told me of his childhood, how he was adored rather than loved and how adoration forced him to live up to someone else’s idealized image of himself rather than being able to be his authentic, imperfect human self. He told me of the ways that patriarchy and toxic masculinity had forced him to push feelings of tenderness, vulnerability, tears, doubt, uncertainty and wonder underground, and how they later metastasized into another persona called “Shadow Man.”

This disassociated self was capable of sexually abusing a five-year-old girl and physically torturing and gaslighting her thereafter. He told me in ruthless detail everything he had done to me and why. He allowed himself to feel the pain, heartbreak and betrayal he had caused in me. He reflected deeply on his past in order to understand what had led him to these terrible actions. He explained his behavior rather than justifying it. And through his agonizing detailed admissions, he expressed deep sorrow, remorse, guilt and self-hatred. He took responsibility and he made amends.

In the book, my father also confessed to me that to apologize is to be a traitor to men. That there is an unwritten code of silence that is not to be broken without unraveling the whole story of patriarchy.

But he also told me that what he had done to me had poisoned his soul and consumed him in the next world. He was desperate to tell the truth, to make an apology so he could get free.

Until I wrote this book, both my father and I were caught for nearly 60 years in an ongoing vise of pain, rage, guilt and shame. We were consigned to a particular terrible time in our history. Me, defined as victim; him defined as perpetrator.

Because my father owned his actions and apologized in the book, my suffering was honored and made real. I experienced justice and respect. I heard the words I needed to hear that released the resentment, pain and hurt. I was able to have a deeper understanding of his history, wounds and motivation, and because of that the ongoing, haunting question of why was finally resolved. I was able fully let him go and move on.

Of course I wrote my father’s apology for him. But I must say it was a profoundly healing and liberating exercise. Because my father has lived inside me my whole life, I was able to move him in a new direction, from monolithic monster to apologist, from terrifying entity to broken, damaged little boy. In doing so, I gained agency and he lost his power over me.

In the process, I also discovered how central apologies are to the next stage of our human evolution. We must create pathways for men to do this critical work of atonement, and men must be brave now and willing to come forward — risking being called gender traitors — in order to free the suffering of their victims and themselves. The time of reckoning is here.

This piece was first published by NBC news and reproduced with permission.

Eve Ensler is a Tony Award-winning playwright, performer and activist best known for “The Vagina Monologues.” Her critically acclaimed memoir “In the Body of the World” was published by Metropolitan Books in 2013. Her most recent book is “The Apology.”