Since the murder of Anene Booysen, I, and I suspect many others in the gender-based violence sector, have felt completely overwhelmed by the multitude of opinions and approaches to gender-based violence articulated in the sector, the media, and in public and private conversations throughout the country. At the research unit where I work there have been numerous, often frustrating, conversations about how to contribute, what to do and what not to do. So in order to get a fresh perspective, and likely a less jaded one, I asked one of our interns from the US, Gina Shulz, to pen her thoughts on the national furore that she landed in, just two weeks ago. While my position has not changed since my last blog entry, I believe this contribution clarifies a lot of my own views on the significance of awareness, and solidarity in social change, and goes a long way toward representing the more positive side of awareness-based activism. This is what Gina said:
Who owns the gender-based violence (GBV) movement in South Africa? And did they wear black last Friday?
I wore blue at Friday’s demonstration. This was because I, like many others, had not yet worked out my ideological alignment with that particular practice. I felt undecided and neutral, and most importantly, unmarked. Until I arrived at the demonstration. About an hour into the protest, a series of women stood up and shared their intimate and heart-breaking experiences of sexual assault and struggles with the criminal justice system. Suddenly I felt ashamed, and my clothing began to feel less neutral. I felt like I was taking an ideological stance against victims. They had asked me to stand alongside them, to offer visual support indicating that they were not alone, and I had declined.
Of course, this is one of the reasons demonstrations and publicity campaigns can be problematic. They visually mark people as supporters, and by contrast, detractors. These kinds of campaigns can make people feel excluded and bullied, marked as insiders or outsiders. They are almost always short-lived and the sound and fury often obscure the absence of practical action. So if someone asked me to commit to one approach for real social change, my choice would likely not be tied to any particular colour of T-shirt.
These are certainly critiques that have been levelled at the range of activities around recent events. But I also think they are critiques that GBV scholars, activists and organisers have heard and internalised. This dialogue has been shot through with anxiety that this horrifying rape and murder, this national outrage, is a mere media sensation, and that all the noise, anger and action will ultimately dissolve into the status quo. In the meantime activists are all doing what they can, what they know how to do, anything to capitalise the attention on an issue continuously ignored.
In organising marches, in sending flowers to Booysen’s family, in wearing black, in lobbying for re-allocation of resources, they are earnestly and in good faith doing everything they can to get South Africa to care about violence against women and take steps toward ending it, but they are also trying to show solidarity, comfort each other and maintain hope.
Even as the Oscar Pistorius shooting is fitting into a larger story about violence against women, Booysen is fading into the background. Over the last two weeks, Booysen became the symbol of the GBV movement in South Africa. Her story, largely newsworthy because of its uniquely horrific details, stood in for the hundreds of thousands of rape victims whose names will never be printed in the newspaper. But she cannot own the movement, any more than Reeva Steenkamp, and no more than activists in black shirts, or activists refusing to wear black shirts. The challenge, of course, is how to keep fighting once her story, and Steenkamp’s recedes.
Violence against women is not just the scourge of South Africa, it is the scourge of the world. As an American, I can testify that the problem of sexual violence is no less intractable in the US, only South Africa is currently galvanised into action. But the movement has to be much bigger than Anene Booysen or Reeva Steenkamp, bigger than educating youth and boys, bigger than men condemning rape and much bigger than wearing black and or dancing. But it also has to be big enough to encompass all those things. The GBV movement should be as broad and as varied as the people who comprise it and should tackle the problem from every front, it should infuse our relationships and the way we interact daily.
I think I will wear black next time but not because I think it will make the violence stop. Rather it will be because my fellow activists in the fight against violence asked me to. It will also be so that they see me as an ally when I ask them “what next?”