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 Ten |Women’s right to physical security in the Pacific region

Nicole George

Pacific Islands violence The Pacific Islands may be well-known as an idyllic tourist destination, but gendered violence remains a chronic issue for Island women. AAP/Diana Plater via the Conversation

Since 2013, I have worked with women’s groups in the Pacific Islands countries of Fiji, Bougainville (in PNG), New Caledonia, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, to reflect on women’s right to physical security, and ask what that principle looks like in our Pacific region. My research has had two aims; first to understand how the right to safety is institutionalised and reforms are implemented in each country, and second, to examine how the right to safety is understood by women in an everyday sense.

To give some context, it is important to consider the global origins of women’s right to live in security from violence. In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly formally recognised violence against women to be a violation of women’s human rights. In doing so, the issue of women’s vulnerability was no longer considered a source of personal shame and stigma. Rather, it was given full recognition as a global challenge, and states were asked to do more to support their female populations who experienced this violence, as well as to work towards its elimination. 

Since 1993, Pacific Island countries, including the larger island countries of Australia and New Zealand have all responded to this shift in global policy making on violence against women. We have come a long way from the days of 1995 when one Pacific leader jested amongst his male peers at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting, that Pacific men used the idle hours of the “Sunday Sabbath” to kick “either a football or one’s wife around”. 

Nearly twenty years later, the Pacific Island Forum leaders meeting in 2012 was, by contrast are more sympathetic event. Here the regions leaders made a powerful commitment to tackle gender inequality in their countries and also to do more to challenge violence against women. In the years since, we have seen Pacific Island governments recognise their responsibilities towards women and establish reforms that aim to eliminate violence against women.

In PNG, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands we have seen new family law legislation and new domestic violence legislation with more protections for women and harsher penalties enacted for those who perpetrate violence. In Solomon Islands, additionally, the government has established a National Policy to Eliminate Violence Against Women and Girls in 2016 which integrates government and civil society programs to assist those exposed to violence. 

In Fiji, we have seen new policing policy which stipulates a “zero tolerance approach” and “no drop” directing all officers to investigate cases of violence against women brought to their attention, even if women later try to withdraw the complaint. In New Caledonia there have been state and civil society initiatives such as the establishment of shelters and women’s bureaus who offer assistance to women who have been exposed to violence. 

All of these reforms show state and civil society commitment to the objective of eliminating gender violence. But what is their concrete effectiveness? Do they mean women experience less violence in their daily lives? This is always a hard question to answer ask because we also know that when there is more public debate about violence against women, and more effort to improve state authorities’ responses to this issue, more women who might not have reported abuse decide to come forward to demand assistance. 

But given that we are now 16 years on from that landmark international policy shift of 1993, and 7 years on from the Pacific Islands Forum declaration recognising women’s insecurity as an issue of regional concern, we might also expect to see the beginning of a decline in numbers of women being exposed to this violence. Sadly, this is far from evident, and in many countries around the region we see violence against women perpetrated at significant rates consistent, or even higher than, those of 20 years ago.  

So my research has really sought to understand why. My findings indicate to me that while state reform is important, implementation remains a challenge.  

Part of the problem lies in the difficulties that women continue to face in trying to progress charges against violent family members through the criminal justice system. In Solomon Islands, for example, between the establishment of the Family Safety bill in 2014 and 2018, there were only 18 people convicted of family violence offences and only one person had received a custodial sentence. 

There are many dedicated police officers that are sympathetic towards women who bring complaints of violence to their attention. But there are also many others who continue to treat this issue as of minimal importance in general law and order work. Through my research in the Pacific Islands region, I have amassed too many stories which show that even when official policing policy states that women’s complaints of violence must be investigated, individual police officers frequently dissuade women from pressing charges against family members and instead encourage them to return home and reconcile with their husbands.

The scope of policing authority in many Pacific Island countries is also usually quite limited too and this can have an impact on women’s safety. For example, when I began research on violence against women in Fiji in 2013, as the government was implementing the aforementioned “Zero Tolerance” policy on violence against women. This involved a community policing approach and cooperation from local community leaders. Many people around the country praised this program and urged me to study it. The fact that it sought to complement policing responses with the input and authority of community leaders seemed promising. 

Yet, when I went to rural villages, or squatter settlements around the main cities in Fiji to find out more, I encountered less enthusiasm. Women in these places made statements such as “men have no idea what we go through” or “our experiences are just our own”. This suggested that even this program with its zero tolerance message, and degree of community-level cooperation was struggling to make an impact. The testimonies of the women I spoke to in this context, suggested to me that that government programs must do more than show success in a few well-publicised locations if women’s rights to security are to be upheld generally.   

The question of what women might want in terms of state support when they are exposed to violence is interesting too, and suggests the ‘punish and protect’ model of policing may itself not be a solution that those exposed to violence always seek.  My work in Vanuatu with Melissa Bull has yielded particularly interesting results on this question. It has shown that where police do have the capacity to intervene, women simply want officers to bring about a halt in household or family violence so that order is re-established and do not expect or want their partners subjected to punishment. Women here also explained that police can play an important role in educating perpetrators that their violent actions are against law and human rights. 

So what can we take away from all of this? Certainly, we have come a long way in the Pacific region from the days when it was thought appropriate for Pacific leaders to make jokes about women’s vulnerability to violence and show little regard to questions of women’s safety. Today, many Pacific Island states take this challenge seriously and have enacted legal, policing and welfare reforms to uphold women’s rights to security, and make that an issue of state responsibility. But more work needs to be done to ensure that these commitments are more than just words. The design of reform is the first step.

Meaningful implementation in ways that provide women with valuable aid, support and protection from violence, is a second but far more challenging part of the process. This will be vital if we are committed to challenging the scenario where women’s rights to security are respected and we find it unacceptable that women’s stories of violence should remain “simply their own”. 

Nicole George is Associate Professor at the University of Queensland. Her research focuses on the gendered politics of conflict and peacebuilding, violence, security and participation. Since the early 2000s, she has conducted research in the Pacific Islands region focusing on gender politics, gendered security and post conflict transition in Fiji, New Caledonia, Bougainville and Solomon Islands, working in collaboration with women’s organisations, women decision-makers and women policymakers in these settings.