#TheEmptyChair & online backlash against anti-rape advocacy

This week, US-based New York magazine (NYmag) published an article featuring 35 women who’ve accused actor Bill Cosby of sexual assault.

The article spread like wildfire on social media, with many sharing the magazine’s powerful cover image:

NYmag

A big talking point was the empty chair pictured, which represents the 11 other women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault (and other potential victims), who are not featured in the article.

Unprecedented response

The article’s impact was bigger than the NYmag’s journalists imagined and soon, the hashtag #TheEmptyChair was trending on social media. #TheEmptyChair prompted several tweets from people expressing solidarity with victims of sexual violence.

Journalist Elon James White, who started #TheEmptyChair, received dozens of messages from victims of sexual violence, sharing their experiences.

Social media: A platform for the silenced

NYmag’s journalists commented on the increasing use of social media as a platform to speak up about rape, saying:

“… Online, there is a strong sense now that speaking up is the only thing to do, that a woman claiming her own victimhood is more powerful than any other weapon in the fight against rape.”

They also note that allegations regarding Bill Cosby’s conduct only gained momentum after a video clip of comedian Hannibal Burres speaking about the allegations went viral on social media last year.

Bill Cosby was accused of sexual assault as early as 2005 (click here for a full timeline of related events). However, even as more and more women came forward to speak about their assaults, many people still defended Cosby.

The drawbacks of anti-rape advocacy on social media

Hours after NYmag published the Cosby story, their website became inaccessible for hours after a suspected Denial of Service attack. A hacker who later took responsibility for the attack, claims the attack had nothing to do with the Cosby’s story.

Although it may be true that the motivations for the attack on NYmag’s website was unrelated to the Cosby feature, people who speak out about against sexual violence are often harassed or silenced online.

In 2014, feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, who vlogs about representations of women in gaming, fled from her home after receiving death threats.

South-African journalist and author, Charlene Smith has also encountered online harassment. She spoke to me about her experiences with a particularly relentless harasser on social media.

Smith says, “He first came after me on Facebook by messaging to my inbox crude and vicious notes. I blocked him.

He then began emailing me; I threatened to lay a charge and blocked him again. I discovered he was doing or had done the same to other outspoken rape survivors.”

Smith says the harassment continued even after she moved to the United States. This time, it was on Twitter.

She says, “He was lurking, waiting to come after me again with torrents of insults. I blocked him and reported him to Twitter. I know others who did the same.”

A complex problem

In dealing with online harassment, one challenge is that many victims do not know their attackers.  Another problem is that when online harassers are blocked, on sites like Twitter, they can start new accounts to continue the harassment.

Asked how she handles the harassment, Smith says, “Block, report and move on seems most sensible.”

She continues: “If you believe they have the capacity to track you down and physically harm you, and then go to the police, otherwise, put it down to one of the challenges of the infant internet age.”

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Kenyans quash misrepresentations with #SomeoneTellCNN

The President of the United States, Barack Obama, is currently in Kenya for a state visit. Obama is the first US president to visit Kenya and thus, there has been widespread coverage of this event.

Ahead of Obama’s visit, news agency CNN reported that Obama was to visit “a terror hotbed”, which outraged Kenyan people.

Kenyans took to Twitter to set the record straight, using the hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN

Though the #SomeoneTellCNN  hashtag was previoulsy used in 2012, this weekend, it went viral.

A trendsmap image showing where #SomeoneTellCNN was used, from @BBCAfrica

 

The danger of a single #SomeoneTellCNN story

Some tweeters were not as comfortable with the #SomeoneTellCNN hashtag, noting instances where Kenyan media have described Kenya in the same ways as CNN did.

Representations of Africa: a social justice issue

CNN’s coverage in this instance, which focuses only on a negative aspect of Kenya, reminds us of the problems that occur when African countries are represented by Western media.

Highlighting this trend in his piece How to Write About Africa, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina ironically writes, “Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention … Africa is doomed.”

Achille Mbembe, a Research Professor in History and Politics at the University of the Witwatersrand, has also written about representations of Africa, noting that these often associate Africa with incompleteness and chaos.

Other scholars add that such depictions are part of the mechanisms which allow the West to maintain its dominance over Africa.

The imperative for Africans is, as scholars Grinker and Steiner write, to “learn to problematize the issue of representation in order to locate and unpack the economic, political, personal, and other motivations that might underlie any particular image of Africa,”.

The representation of people (and nations) is a social justice issue because it impacts how people are viewed and treated. #SomeoneTellCNN is a tool through which Kenyans have pushed back against misrepresentation and a good example of how digital media can be a formidable force against the mainstream media.

Resistance through social media: From #MCInHerShoes to #InOurShoes

content warning: discussion of gender-based violence & victim-blaming

Recently, I wrote about the online uproar after Marie Claire magazine’s launched its Women’s month #MCInHerShoes campaign, which was criticized for including men who’ve been accused of domestic violence, such as DJ Euphonik.

Marie Claire, which pledged to donate money to a charity which aids abused women when people used the #MCInHerShoes hashtag, initially stood behind the campaign.

Not wanting to miss out on an important debate, on Thursday, the Department of Women (DoW) joined the conversation on Twitter.

https://twitter.com/Dept_of_Women/status/624128434613190656

https://twitter.com/Dept_of_Women/status/624128611323387904

The tweets were not well received.

Why abuse victims drop charges against abusers 

Jen Thorpe, a women’s rights researcher and editor of FeministSA.com, responded to the DoW’s tweets, explaining why it’s problematic to criticize women who withdraw charges of domestic violence (which the Department of Women should have known, but let’s not digress).

Thorpe addressed the complexity of reporting an abusive romantic partner to the police, saying: “In some cases, women face pressure from the family of the abuser,” to make the relationship work.

She continued, “Abuse is often cyclical and linked to alcohol and substance abuse. This may lead the woman who reported to believe that their partner will never abuse them again.”

Thorpe also explained that there can be severe consequences for women who report domestic violence to the police, particularly if they are economically dependent on their partner.

Considering research findings, which indicate that reporting abuse to can lead to the abuse worsening, it goes without saying that the Department of Women’s tweet’s were inappropriate.

They later tweeted:

https://twitter.com/Dept_of_Women/status/624231380701085696

Taking matters into our own hands

For social justice activists concerned about gender based violence, the gimmicky #MCInHerShoes campaign and the Department of Women’s attitude to victims of violence is incredibly disappointing.

However, with thanks to social media, more of us have the power to counter harmful media representations and present alternative narratives.

On Thursday morning, activist Michelle Solomon took to Facebook to begin #InOurShoes, a campaign which seeks to represent people’s experiences of violence more accurately and more inclusively than #MCInHerShoes.

Twitter users started sharing personal experiences of gender based violence:

https://twitter.com/b_oliphant/status/624271259241709568

https://twitter.com/uzamantungwa/status/624287448080744450

On Thursday afternoon, Marie Claire magazine issued an apology for their campaign, describing it as “ill-conceived”.

To join the conversation, use the hashtag #InOurShoes to share experiences of gender-based violence.

Missing the mark: #MCInHerShoes

Recently, to commemorate Women’s Month, Marie Claire South Africa announced their #MCInHerShoes campaign. The campaign features 18 male celebrities who pose in high-heeled shoes to “stand with women”. MC

The campaign was met with resistance, and accused of trivializing women’s issues.

Part of the criticism included Marie Claire magazine’s choice to draw attention to 18 men for women’s month, as well as their choice to include who have come under fire for sexism and alleged abuse, such as Gareth Cliff and Dj Euphonik.

Clictivism for a cause?

Writer Louise Ferreira, describes the #MCInHerShoes campaign as a cheap gimmick in an article for Women24.

Ferreira continues to point out the slacktivism element of the campaign: “Your tweet is going to make little difference to the lives of abused women, but it allows you to feel that you’ve done something, so you don’t need to put in additional effort.”

Where marketing meets charity

#QueerStruggles and #RhodesMustFall are examples of Twitter campaigns which have brought to light the injustices faced by marginalized groups. What these campaigns did well was push back against heterosexism and institutional racism, by creating awareness.

What Marie Claire ends up doing, as pointed out by Ferreira, is using the reach of Twitter and the fact that August is Women’s Month to further themselves in the name of standing against violence.

Ferreira says, “This is a PR exercise, an attempt to boost their brand on Twitter, and it is contemptible.

Promoting comfortable ‘discomfort’

For some, it may not be clear why there is such an uproar over Marie Claire’s efforts, particularly since they attempted to bring men into the gender conversation.

However, there’s a difference between activism which challenges society’s norms and campaigns which reinforce the status quo. Responding to the criticism, Marie Claire editor Aspasia Karras tweeted:

A lot of the time, challenging social norms such as the inferior status of women in society is (and should be) an uncomfortable learning curve, especially for the people those social norms favour.

I gather Marie Claire’s campaign aimed to make the men involved ‘uncomfortable’. And heels are, for many people, uncomfortable.

However, #MCInHerShoes made more people uncomfortable, by prioritizing the experience of wearing heels over the discomfort caused by street harassment, domestic violence and the threat of sexual assault and centering men in doing so.

Many also point out that, by associating high heels with womanhood, the campaign also plays into gender stereotypes. This does very little to disrupt the status quo, where a patriarchal system constantly defines women as being different and lesser to men.

Women’s Month is important in the sense that it can highlight gendered violence which still plagues our society. That said, this could be done women without reinforcing the idea that men and women are inherently different and that there are two, rigid expressions of gender.

There is also a lot of work which needs to be done to include trans women and gender nonconforming people in campaigns for equality, as they often face discrimination for not fitting into gender norms.

https://twitter.com/sianfergs/status/623453563956666368

The #MCInHerShoes campaign plays into established rules about what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man.

At first glance, it may seem useful, but upon deeper analysis, the campaign trips up and falls short.

Student directors take on gender issues in Festival debuts

Several student directors – all of them women – are presenting work at this year’s Festival that deals with the complexities of gender and sexuality.

One of them is 22-year-old University of Western Cape (UWC) Bachelor of Sciences student Ayabonga Pasiya, whose passion for drama was sparked when she was in high school. She’s at a university with no formal drama programme but, along with her cast, has impressed supervising lecturer Mary Hames with their ability to “write their narratives without apology”.

“Ayabonga has done amazing work,” Hames says. Her drama, Admission Reserved, addresses gender and racial stereotypes. “It’s not anti-men or anti-white, it’s just pro black women,” Pasiya says. The script was workshopped with the Gender Equity Unit at UWC. “Choosing [content] was difficult because I didn’t want to make it seem as though any person’s truth is more or less valuable than another’s,” Pasiya says.

“I’ve enjoyed watching the transformation of our stories into actions and the blossoming of confidence and will in the cast members.” Pasiya’s says of her Festival directing debut, “I would like anyone who has been a victim of rape, molestation or abuse of any kind to feel that they can reclaim their bodies.”

Tackling taboo topics

Inez Robertson, third-year acting student, writer and director of City Varsity’s Raw Meat, says she aims to highlight the plight of people who are often neglected in discussions about sexual violence. “Sexual abuse is so prevalent in this country that it has become part of our culture. But are we protecting the man that was raped? The sex-worker that was raped?”

“Touching on complex subjects such as sex work, homosexuality and sexual abuse is “important to me,” says Robertson, “not only as a writer but as a South African.”

“I’d like my audience to walk away wanting to challenge what they know and cf wanting to know more about how they can help people like the characters in the piece,” she says. “Sometimes it’s simply about getting to know the people around you and understanding that everyone just wants a chance, no matter what they’ve been through or what they do for a living.”

Setting aside emotional intensity, Robertson loves the highs of directing. “I’m hooked on the moment-to-moment thrill of it all,” she says.

Robert Haxton, the lecturer who supervised Raw Meat, praises the cast for their sensitivity to these intense issues. “They approach characters from a very inward and real place; they want to find the subtlety in the characters,” he says.

Honest theatre

For Mariska Denysschen, a 21-year-old BTech student at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), the focus is writing “relevant and honest” theatre. Her piece, Medea, supervised by lecturer Kabi Thulo, is an interpretation of Euripides’ Greek tragedy. “We’ve adapted the story to articulate more relevant themes for young women today, to create a Medea that women can identify with,” she says.

Denysschen says Medea questions the idea often portrayed in the media that women are “weaklings”. Her choice to represent women as strong, she says, is because she believes “it’s important for the world to see us this way”.

Not wanting to give too much away about Medea, Denysschen says the style in which the cast presents the piece leaves more than enough room for audience members to take away whatever they need to from [it]”.

In producing experimental theatre, Denysschen says the challenge was to “sustain” the unconventional “language” in Medea. “The process was made easy by the hard-working and committed cast members, whose fearlessness and trust in me humbled me,” she adds.

For the love of theatre

The fourth student work involving gender is Enough is Enough, a chapter in the life of a girl who was rapedLehlogonolo Sekgatja, whose directing debut represents The University of Limpopo, says getting the cast to understand the style of different types of theatre is the hardest part of her job but that forming relationships with the cast has made the long hours worthwhile.

“We call ourselves a family. We work hand in hand,” she says.

Sekgatja has been working on Enough is Enough while also pursuing a Bachelor of Sciences degree. “[This] is something we love; it’s people with passion who wanted to do this,” she says.

The highlight for Sekgatja is watching the protagonist in Enough is Enough transform under different circumstances.

Originally published in Cue Newspaper, 2015

Tefo Paya: A grounded, courageous performer

Motswana playwright Tefo Paya describes himself as a “closet writer”, who aims to put on “relatable” productions.  In his Standard Bank Ovation Award-winning piece Morwa: The Rising Son, he gives snapshots of his protagonist’s life, drawing attention to their different life experiences.

Paya begins his one-man show performing a poem. An enclosure of bright orange organza fabric is on the Gymnasium’s floor around him. He moves within space, picking up and putting on a different piece of clothing, each time transforming into a different character.

Outstanding percussionist Volley Nchabeleng follows each of Paya’s movements, playing a tune from his kalimba, building up a beat on his drums or belting out a melody. He punctuates each of Paya’s punchlines, perfectly matching each scene transition with a musical arrangement.

Routinely, Paya returns to the centre of the organza ring to cleanse himself with water from a metal tub on the stage. Watching Paya douse himself in water on a chilly evening draws in the audience further. “My sense of touch was awakened,” says one audience member after the final applause.

Paya’s portrayal of a Tswana man’s life experiences is compelling and authentic, enriched with a side-splitting humour. He takes the audience on a captivating road, touching on how expectations of gender affect the main character.

Paya’s open-ended ending, which features a stellar vocal performance by Nchabeleng, leaves audience members emotionally moved. “I couldn’t clap when the applause started. I was still inside the story,”  says one woman.

The personal becomes public

In an interview with Cue, 30-year-old Paya says Morwa: the Rising Son started as a personal narrative. Its foundation came about while he researched masculinity for his honours thesis. Paya says, “All of a sudden, I said, ‘I need to tell my story’”.

“One of the things I felt I lost out on was being guided properly. That’s why rites of passage are a big part of the piece,” says Paya. In 2012 Morwa: The Rising Son was first performed at the Maitisong festival in Botswana. Paya later developed it “to make it every man’s story”.

He says, “I started hearing stories from young men, mostly in Botswana, and there were many similarities”.  The common thread he found was the issue of fatherhood in African homes, which he also addresses in the piece. “What is described as a man…yes, there’s a big definition…but no one ever actually fits into it. If we can address things like the vulnerabilities of men, we can get to the root of violence.”

He adds, “You’ve got to get to the roots if you want to deal with the problem”.

Connecting with the audience

Having performed Morwa: The Rising Son for diverse audiences, Paya says the highlight of the experience has been the audience’s reactions: “The look into the audience afterwards – their eyes – there’s a moment where I’m seeing people, not an audience, witnessing a story about another person”.

The journey of writing and performing Morwa: The Rising Son has helped Paya better understand himself. “I’m very sensitive, as a performer and as a person. I can perform in ways that are very technical, but I don’t like that. I prefer a piece like this one – one that lives and grows with every performance and allows nuances.”

Paya adds, “[It’s] strengthened my identity as Motswana – understanding who I am, and embracing it.”

“There’s something in us as Africans – the soul or the spirit – which grounds, looking beyond materialistic greed.” He emphasises the importance of being connected to the environment – what he describes in his vernacular as “go wela mowa”. “The reason we’re not so well is that we’ve been pulled away from our roots, from being present.”

In addition to physical and technical preparation before his shows, Paya values spiritual preparation: calling on his ancestors for guidance. “I believe you’re given a gift and you’re meant to use it for a purpose.”

A purpose-driven artist
Paya works hand-in hand with Warren Nebe, director of Morwa: The Rising Son. Nebe, who has known Paya for many years, describes him as “willing, courageous, honest and profoundly disciplined”.In future, Paya hopes to pursue a doctorate in drama therapy, focusing on psychology and sociology in the arts. “I am an artist who uses my craft for change. For me, [it’s] not just a performance – it needs to serve a purpose.”

Paya says in five years time he will have his own arts school in Botswana, centred on community development and teaching different aspects of theatre: “What I’ll do is invite guest artists from all [over] Africa. By me performing, I meet a lot of people – I’ll invite them”.

“So you want to bring the world to Botswana?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says, “But also to take Botswana to the rest of the world. Those who have been to Botswana will tell you there’s something about it – an energy. If you can appreciate it, you find an inner peace that you won’t find in most places”.

Originally published in Cue Newspaper, 2015

I Have Life – Alison’s Journey: a review of Maralin Vanrenen’s stage adaptation

A stage adaptation of “I Have Life – Alison’s Journey” opened at Victoria Theatre on Thursday, 2 July and was received with a standing ovation.

The theatre piece is based on the well-known story of Alison Botha; a woman who was brutally raped and left for dead by two attackers in Port Elizabeth. Following Botha’s attack, she published a best-selling book titled “I Have Life” (as told to Marianne Thamm).

Theatre Excellence

Described by the audience as “real” and “uplifting”, I Have Life deserves the highest praise. Suanne Braun’s portrayal of Alison Botha is outstanding. So convincing is Braun’s acting, that after the show, several inspired audience members flocked to her, praising her and addressing her as ‘Alison’.

The stage adaptation is crisp – evocative and horrifying in the right places, but also, moving. Despite the fact that I Have Life deals with the painful subject of rape, there was a good dose of humour injected into the piece. Director Maralin Vanrenen’s choice to add light-hearted moments reflects her desire to portray Alison’s truth, which includes Alison’s sense of humour.

Skilful scripting

Vanrenen’s seamless directing ensures that the audience is hooked from the start. It should not be overlooked that Vanrenen is able to bring to life a play, using a narrative mostly comprised of Alison Botha’s thoughts as a basis. Achieving this is a testament to Vanrenen’s creativity and dedication to detail.

Including excerpts from Alison Botha’s motivational speeches in the script,I Have Life tackles common myths about rape and rape victims. The play sensitively highlights various aspects of the trauma of sexual violence, such as depression, loss of self-confidence and anger. In this way, the play is a vehicle for Alison Botha’s story to reach victims of all types of sexual violence: encouraging them to take charge of their futures.

Audience discussion

The opening show was followed by an audience discussion, curated by a City Press journalist. In the discussion, members of the audience expressed how profound they found the narrative. One audience member, a social worker with 2 decades of experience, said that the play needs to be shown in different communities around South Africa.

Several people agreed that the play was a necessary one, which aptly highlights the plight of women in society. Maralin Vanrenen says, the intention of the play was to show how it “is the responsibility of us all to change the state of society” when it comes to the issue of violence against women.