28 May 2019

South Africa: Connecting With Centuries-Old Stories About Women's Painful Struggles

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analysis

This is an edited extract from a chapter in the recently published "Teaching for Change".

In 2016 female students at South Africa's universities started the #EndRapeCulture campaign to mobilise against the pervasive culture of sexual violence on the different campuses. In Stellenbosch the campaign was marked by two striking occasions.

One evening in April 2016, the fire alarms went off at 2am across the Stellenbosch University campus. This was to signal the message that the student community would no longer be silent about their fellow students being raped.

A month earlier, a group of young women had drawn even further attention to this by appearing topless at a university event. The message they were communicating was that their bodies, even though naked, were not for trespassing.

These two examples of public protest did well to spark debates on the ongoing reality of sexual violence that's truly a global phenomenon.

However, as an educator who regularly teaches on topics in relation to gender-based violence, I think that public protests should be supplemented with sustained conversations in classrooms, churches and other places where people are gathered.

Over the years, I've found that stories, both ancient and modern, that narrate this reality are a powerful tool for raising awareness. These stories are vital in the broader task of teaching students about the reality of sexual violence. They also offer insights into the creative possibilities of female agency in circumstances where dignity's denied.

Teaching for change

One such narrative that helps us to be mindful of the systemic nature of gender-based violence is the fascinating biblical story (Jeremiah 40-44) of what Wilda Gafney, an author, priest and theologian, has dubbed the "trafficked Judean princesses". They were passed on from one renegade leader after another. They ended up in Egypt after surviving what's been called the Mizpah massacre. The story's hidden away in a larger narrative account of Judean leaders murdering a group of refugees who'd just escaped the Babylonian invasion.

It draws our attention to the vulnerable bodies of women who were objectified, sexualised and commoditised then - and sadly still are to this day.

The fact that one has to look much closer to notice this particular story is a reminder that one has to be intentional in looking for stories about women's violation.

The biblical story that narrates the women's denial of agency and voice - and conceivably also of sexual violation by their captors - is embedded in a larger multi-levelled story of systemic violence. The group that gathers at Mizpah has survived a most brutal display of imperial violence during the Babylonian invasion. At Mizpah, the survivors are not safe. Rather they are subjected to a further display of violence. This time it's at the hand of their own people.

Today, women all across the world continue to have to fend off threats not only from outside but also from within. Researcher Laura Tennenhouse provides some examples of this through what has been called the "feminisation of migration". She shows, for instance, how female migrants' bodies often serve as commodities, frequently negotiated by male family members. For many migrant women, it's their own fathers and husbands, who themselves had been the victims of violence, who're responsible for the violation.

The power of art

Trauma narratives such as the one of the "trafficked princesses" underscore the powerful ability of art to forge a connection with viewers from other times and places. In a fascinating article, feminist scholar Griselda Pollock explains how an "aesthetic encounter," can allow readers to be transported into other spaces and times in an equally affecting way.

Moreover, Pollock notes that a particular artistic expression may resonate on some unconscious level with the reader or viewer that might not have been evident before.

It's precisely this point of "trans-subjective borderlinking" that offers a point of connection between our situation and the world reflected in the text that makes stories, both ancient and modern, such a helpful tool when teaching on gender-based violence.

The biblical story of the suffering and violation of the "trafficked princesses" may help victims of trauma - both then and now - to speak about the reality and the effects of sexual violence. Such a story may also help not just students, but society at large to grow in insight regarding the reality of sexual violence in contexts near and far.

By connecting with stories that represent in art the painful struggles of women, real and imagined, recent and from a long time ago, we're able to put our experiences into words and share our stories with trusted confidants who offer a safe space.

Juliana Claassens, Professor of Old Testament and Head of Gender Unit, Faculty of Theology, Stellenbosch University

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