Sunday, April 17, 2011
Silence = Violence
It's 5:30 in the morning and I don't want to be awake. I don't want to be awake and I don't want to be here. Why oh why did I offer to do this? At least I am not alone. Hundreds of people are filing through the door to the Great Hall, all of them stifling yawns and shuffling their feet. No one wants to be here, but we all know that we have to. It's not that anyone is forcing us (though I think Larissa may have threatened early deaths to anyone who wasn't interested). Well, that's not entirely true. The government is forcing us. The legal system is forcing us. The fact that there were 72,500 rapes last year is forcing us to be here at this god-awful hour. There is no one holding us to our promise but ourselves.
I remember the first time that I took part in the silent protest four years ago. There were 80 of us standing in Larissa's office at 7am, our bellies full of a hurried breakfast and our wills strong, waiting for our mouths to be taped shut. We were the first to fast in solidarity with the one out of nine women who speak out about their rapes, and in solidarity the other eight women who don't. Today there are 1500 students, all wearing the shocking purple stamped with the slogan that has become so familiar, that brings out so many emotions: "Silence = Violence".
"Find someone interesting," Larissa said last night. I look around the hall filled with students, filled with women all preparing to tape their mouths shut and wonder how on earth I am going to single out one interesting women. I am not used to judging a book by its cover, and that is essentially what she wants me to do. How am I supposed to choose when each of these women has their own story, their own reason for taking part in the protest. Though there are a number of women proudly wearing the "Rape Survivor" shirts, proud to be one in the nine, I know that there are more rape survivors out there who can't bring themselves to wear the label, who can't confront what has happened to them. I don't blame them. If I were a rape survivor, I don't know if I could handle the response from the student population. I don't think I could face the comments that I have heard before as a protester, comments like: "If I raped you now, you couldn't scream".
The women are lining up to have their mouths tapes shut now, and I still haven't found anyone. I look at each of the women coming out of the lines, the black tape covering their lips, hiding their emotions. I watch as hugs are shared, as tears are wiped away while someone sings Pink's "Dear Mr President" in the background. And then I see her. She's standing on her own, waiting for someone or something, not quite knowing what to do. She can't tell me, but I can tell that she is feeling awkward and uncomfortable, unsure where to go. There is something that pulls me towards her.
"Hi," I say, my voice sounding over-loud and over-confident in the silence that echos around us.
"This is going to sound strange, but would you mind if I followed you today?"
I hold up my camera as an explanation, and her eyes widen for a second before she nods uncertainly. I tell her how I've been tasked with following someone all day, from the morning march to their lectures and tutorials, to the final march and the breaking of the silence at 7pm.
"Are you sure it's okay," I ask, suddenly realising how creepy I must seem.
She nods again, tries to speak and then remembers the tape that prevents speech. I hand her my notebook and she introduces herself that way.
From the Great Hall, I follow Wendy through the march, keeping an eye on her, capturing the start of her emotional journey. I almost lose her in the crowd after the group photos are taken, but she finds me and we walk together to her first lecture, isiXhosa. I take a seat next to her as the lecturer walks into the room, and I prepare to start taking photos of her listening intently, taking notes, being a diligent student. Suddenly she grabs the notebook in front of me and hastily writes - "I don't think taking photos in lectures is a good idea." Crap. I look around me at the students who are all trying hard to concentrate and ignore my obvious presence (my pasty skin was a dead giveaway that I was an outsider to the class), occasionally glaring at me and my camera. I also notice the glances that I am getting from the lecturer, daring glances that seem to say: "Just try it." Okay, so lectures are out of the question. There were still other things to be done.
After getting to know Wendy better during her breaks between lectures, learning about her life and trying to qualm her fears about the fasting aspect of the protest (having fasted once a year since I was 10 years old, I had a few pieces of advice that seemed to make her feel better), taking photos of her writing notes in the quad and studying in the library, we meet up at 12:30 in the library quad for the die in.
The die in is a symbolic hour of lying completely still and silent to represent the thousands of women who are murdered because of their sex or gender. Women lie at angles to each other, lie alongside their friends, hold hands regardless of sexual orientation, and men in solidarity lie spread out amongst them, the minority by far but still making their presence known. As the siren goes off telling people to put away their cellphones and stop tweeting about the event, complete silence falls over the quad and people close their eyes to make the message all the more meaningful - they became nothing more than bodies littering the quad where people usually spend their afternoons relaxing. As they lie there, Larissa and others make speeches reminding everyone why they are there and why this kind of process is still necessary. Stories are told - stories about horrendous rapes by people in power - and resolve is strengthened.
At the end of the day, I meet up with Wendy once more to start preparing for the final march to the cathedral where the fast will be broken. Water and candles are passed out amongst the exhausted protesters and signs start coming out - signs expressing frustration at the current state of the country, signs asking questions that raise eyebrows and signs that showed that these women (and men) were not going to be quiet any longer. As the group starts to make their way down the steps of the administration, through the Drosdy Arch and onto the street, people stop and stare, people start taking their own photos, people start noticing. As I follow Wendy through the crowd her gait, which had seemed so dejected, so tired towards the end of the day, starts quickening. So close to the finish line, she starts to perk back up and remember why it was that she was doing this.
As I follow the 1500 protesters down the road, a sense of pride rises within me. It's like watching a baby grow up. I was there at the start - I was one of the 80 and, four years later I am one of the 1500. And I'm not silent - I never will be again.