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We shouldn’t look away when gender-based violence happens
Author: Juliana Claassens
Published: 28/11/2022

​The annual campaign of 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children takes place from 25 November to 10 December. In an opinion piece for News24, Prof Juliana Claassens (Old and New Testament) writes that we can't afford to look away any longer when gender-based violence is committed.

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Juliana Claassens*

In her book Female Fear Factory, Pumla Dineo Gqola writes that in communities where gender-based violence (GBV) has been normalised, women and LGBTIQ+ individuals know all too well that when they are attacked or harassed in public, people will look away.  Even more disconcerting, in situations which women and other vulnerable individuals are harassed or harmed, they often pretend as if nothing is happening. Gqola remarks that over a lifetime, “we are taught that the only way to remain safe is to look away, that it is dangerous to defend ourselves".

This notion of looking away struck a chord with me this year as we are once more asked to, for 16 days actively contemplate the violence faced by many women, children, and LGTBIQ+ individuals.

Every year during the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children (November 25-December 10), shortly before the festivities associated with Christmas and end-of-year functions start, we think of the growing list of horrific acts of intimate partner violence, rape, femicide, and corrective rape that targets especially Lesbian women. And every year we look away, or pretend it is not happening to women in our community for we want to believe that is the surest way to keep us safe.

This is where art is such a powerful means of forcing us not to look away. Art compels us to see what the artist sees. To really look. To say what it is we see. And when it comes to GBV to let our eyes run with tears.

A couple of years ago, Gabrielle Goliath created a powerful video installation Elegy in the Goodman Gallery that offers a candid look at the violence inflicted on women and queer women. True to its name, this installation documents several performances by female singers who each offer a haunting lament for a specific victim of GBV – women and queer bodies who have been violated till the point of death.

At the Goodman Gallery, these individual laments are merged into a cacophonic choir with various voices who are not singing in unison, but cumulatively create a haunting effect of the many diverse experiences of GBV that all have in common that it leads to fear, anguish, and the loss of life.

By singing their lament songs, these women symbolize giving victims back their voices that had been snuffed out. Their respective elegies that become one Elegy serve as a powerful way to resist the violence afflicted upon these women. For the audience, the space opened up by this installation forces us to stand still, to listen, to commemorate, to suffer with, to join in mourning. Countering the natural inclination of observers to look away in the face of violence, this installation compels its hearers to look, to really look and see the plight of these particular victims of violence, but also the scores of others who remain unmourned.

​I show the video of this installation to my students when we speak about Daughter Zion in the book of Lamentations who likewise lift up her voice in lament. In the Ancient Near East, cities were often personified, taking on the persona of a young woman, whose violated body represents on a symbolic level the violence inflicted upon the women, children, and men of the city that is invaded by one empire or another. In the case of Lamentations, this assault comes by the hand of the Babylonian Empire (597-587 BCE). The walls of the City are broken down, and the enemy penetrates into its innermost sanctuaries. Rape that often is utilised as an instrument of war is a striking, though deeply disturbing metaphor, to capture the violation of the City and her inhabitants.

Once more it is a question whether readers, then and now, see the literary and actual violence. In Lamentations 1:12, Daughter Zion calls out to the people passing: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me." And in Lamentations 5:11, the narrator, on behalf of the violated woman who is weeping inconsolably about what had been done to her body and soul, tells God and all who have ears to hear, that “Women are raped in Zion, virgins in the towns of Judah," causing “the joy of our hearts to cease"; “our dancing to turn to mourning." For “because of this our hearts are sick, because of these things our eyes have grown dim" (Lam 5:15, 17).

The reader is called to look, really look what had been done to Daughter Zion and to the people in her city walls. By means of her laments, we as onlookers are left with the question should keep asking ourselves during the 16 days of activism and beyond: How can one just look away and not see the suffering of this woman who carries the wounds of so many others female (and male) victims of violence upon her broken body?

And yet, there are performers like the ones in Elegy, who serve as intercessors, who sing on behalf of the victims of GBV. These artists have not looked away, but they have looked and saw and took the suffering and channeled it into song.

May we during these 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children learn the words of these painful songs. May we join the choir who are lamenting yet another loss to the inexplicable manifestation of GBV in our communities. And may we work for a world where it no longer is necessary to sing elegies at all.

*Prof Juliana Claassens is Professor of Old Testament and Head of the Gender Unit in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.