By Deva Lee
The first year the One in Nine Sexual Violence = Silence protest was staged at Rhodes, a group of about 80 women participated. The campaign has grown each year, and last week 412 people participated in the protest. Purple shirts penetrated most buildings on campus and, for most students and many Grahamstonians, an encounter with a protester was inevitable.
Performance artist Steven Cohen once said that “the performances of the people there [responding to the artist] are what may be called performance art.” What Cohen is saying is that the art happens in reaction to the artist, not because of the artist. While I am not suggesting that the protest is synonymous with performance art, I think Cohen’s claims are applicable to sites of protest in some instances. Ironically, immediate reactions are most vital to the protest. These reactions highlight the problems the protestors are addressing, not the campaign alone.
There are those who reacted aggressively to the protestors. They resented being made to feel uncomfortable. The protest is intended to make you feel uncomfortable; it is not a strange side-effect. There are those who think that the protestors are ‘causing a scene’, but it’s you who is being watched. Your actions speak wildly of your views. You avoid eye contact. You think this protest is not aimed at you. You make jokes about my inability to speak. You think this protest is not aimed at you. You smile encouragingly, letting me know that you think what I am doing is brave. You say you support my cause. You think this protest is not aimed at you. I cannot defend myself against your aggression, cannot laugh at your jokes, cannot answer your questions, and cannot thank you for your support because
This protest is aimed at you. And like performance art, the protest is, as put by Cohen, “internal and intrusive – it is like surgery without anaesthetic.” It alerts many to the prevalence of rape in their spaces of learning and working. It is most difficult for those who have survived rape, particularly those who have not spoken out. This protest is for you. To remind you that you are not without support. One in Nine reminds the government that their policies are ineffective; that their support for rape survivors is non-existent and their protection of women and children is not prioritised.
When the shouts died down on Friday night, the blanket of silence accompanying sexual violence returned to Grahamstown. All the men at Rhodes who have been raped were effectively ignored. There were no men protesting in solidarity with male rape survivors. There were no debates, demonstrations or artistic rebellions in support of them. The societies and organisations who excluded them in the Anti Sex and GenderBased Violence Week were not challenged on this issue. I don’t think that is acceptable, I don’t think it is fair and free and I don’t think I should continue to be silenced about my views. So if you agree with me, then speak out against this injustice.