Life, etc

Women’s Month: Women’s bodies as a landscape of trauma

By Marianne Thamm 4 August 2014

Forget the Department of Arts and Culture’s #WearADoek campaign for Women’s Month. It is the simplicity of a young woman who stripped naked and stood quietly below the six-metre-high bronze statue of Nelson Mandela in Sandton last week who captured local imagination. Braveheart, as the woman has been named, has in some way enabled women to “re-embody” our bodies in a space that is generally hostile, an issue which US feminist and activist Eve Ensler, currently in South Africa, has made her life’s work. By MARIANNE THAMM.

Two days before 1 August, the start of Women’s Month in South Africa, a young and as of yet unknown woman in Johannesburg performed a gesture so profound and so simple that it has since come to embody much of that which is left unspoken or which is “unspeakable” when it comes to women and violence in South Africa.

Around lunchtime on Tuesday, 31 July, the woman strode across Mandela Square, removed her clothing and stood naked for a few minutes beneath the enormous bronze statue of a dancing Mandela. From a subsequent video that was recorded on a phone (and if one can ignore the cat calls and inane laugher of those making the video) the woman appears to be in control of herself and the situation. She is calm, regal, and unafraid. She is not distracted by anyone or anything. The entire event could have been staged. It could have been a piece of performance art a la Steven Cohen or the “grandmother of performance art”, the Serbian-born Marina Abramovic. For now we simply do not know, but the gesture has provoked much discussion.

woman at the feet of Mandela

Photo: … she strode across Mandela Square, removed her clothing and stood naked for a few minutes beneath the enormous bronze statue of a dancing Mandela.

At first the young woman stood beneath the statue and appeared to be tugging at Madiba’s trouser leg. Because of the scale of the Mandela figure in relation to the woman, she is dwarfed, becoming a symbolic girl child attempting to attract a “father’s” attention. When he appears not to heed, she leans forward and rests her head on his leg, apparently dejected. After a few moments she turns around, walks towards the little heap of clothes she has left piled on the square, pulls on her underwear, a white petticoat and an orange dress and finally appears to collect up a few objects she had strewn on the paving. A security guard attempts to lead her away but she refuses and walks off defiantly, out of the frame. And then she is gone.

Within hours photographs of the naked woman had gone viral on social media platforms. She was named #Braveheart by someone on Twitter. There was clearly something about her and the event that had resonated deeply with women and many men (one has to, in this instance, completely ignore comments by trolls who fled the asylum en masse to social media platforms after the event).

There is something unsettling and provocative about making yourself so vulnerable – particularly as a woman – in public. As we know, private and public spaces are unsafe for South African women. We live in one of the most violent countries in the world and so to strip naked – to stand unprotected, uncovered – was an extraordinary act of defiance and reclamation. In that moment, this young woman embodied her body (my body, our bodies). She took the space – a space – that we as women can often not claim as our own. The audacity and bravery of it, as well as its silent occurrence, is what still intrigues.

That she had gone to seek some solace at the feet of Mandela, too, was deeply moving and open to interpretation. We are still fresh from mourning Mandela’s death in December. We have lost our collective father and there appears to be no one now who has come to symbolise this benign, loving, protective figure. Were the bones perhaps strewn there to invoke our grand ancestor? Was this a plea for help, for someone to intervene?

Writer Milisuthando Bongela received 29,000 unique visitors in 24 hours when she posted about the woman on her blog.

Bongela translated Braveheart’s gesture and her choice of location thus: “Whether it is art or not, my interpretation of this is that she is making the invisible real and black body visible, making it visible at the physical embodiment of South Africa’s neo-liberal agenda, one that prioritises capital, not people, it is a building that represents all the wrong turns we’ve made to end up in a situation where 25 percent of South Africans are unemployed and poor, a building that represents our nation’s status as the dumping ground for Western Imperialism. It’s a comment on how commodified the image of Mandela has become. It towers over a mall, a mall whose shops consist of celebrating the success of international brands and globalisation that impedes our own development. Her body and statement are beautiful and brave. Thank you mystery Braveheart….if that’s what you were going for. Please do it again somewhere else.”

It is perhaps serendipitous then that American-born feminist activist, Eve Ensler, author of several works including “the play that defied the world”, The Vagina Monologues, and founder of the V-Day global movement as well as One Billion Rising – the largest global campaign at ending violence against women and girls – should visit our shores in the same week Braveheart provoked us into thinking differently about women’s bodies and making us visible in this way.

Ensler’s visit coincides with the South African production of Emotional Creature, her latest stage work for youth and which is inspired by the stories of girls from around the world. Emotional Creature, which has just finished a run in Johannesburg, will open at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town and play from 6 – 16 August.

On Saturday night the author was in conversation with filmmaker, writer, editor and talk-show host Kgomotoso Matsunyane at a well-attended event at the Baxter. Ensler has just published her memoir, In the Body of the World, an account of her struggle – after being diagnosed with uterine cancer – of reconnecting with her body (and the world) through her illness and treatment.

Ensler said the diagnosis, while it had initially come as a shock, had enabled her to find a way back into her own body after spending her life and her career almost obsessed with the collective body – women’s bodies.

“So many women have been forced to leave their body because it has been a landscape of abuse. After the diagnosis I realised just how far out of my body I had been. The world is so exalted in terms of the pace at which we live and push our bodies. Our bodies become machines. I was doing all this activist work, all this writing and I wasn’t thinking about my own body,” Ensler told Matsunyane.

The surgery to remove a tumour the “size of a mango” in her uterus radically changed her view of and her relationship to the world.

“If you look at the trauma that women across the world face – one billion women across the planet. Do we embody our external selves? What I do think is that we underestimate what trauma is. We don’t how many women are raped or beaten. One out of three or a billion women on the planet will be raped or beaten. If you think about what happens to you when you are raped, what happens to your cells, to your entire being. Most of us, particularly if it happens early, leave our bodies because the body becomes the landscape on which the terror is perpetrated. You don’t want to live there anymore because it is soiled, contaminated, it is scary there.”

Ensler has described being brutally assaulted and raped by her father from the age of five to ten and recalled how, at the time, she had “left my body”.

“I remember seeing myself going above myself and seeing what was happening. If you are not in your body you are not experiencing what is happening. But later, after the fact, you are not in tune with your needs. You are not in your own instincts.”

Ensler recounted her work in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past eight years with women and girls who have survived mass rapes during the various wars and conflicts in the region.

Ensler had traveled to the DRC after meeting the remarkable Dr Denis Mukwege, a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated physician and Congolese national hero who specialises in the treatment of women who have been gang raped by rebel forces. Dr Mukwege is a world expert on surgery to repair the horrendous damage caused to women’s bodies through rape.

“I went there eight years ago. Dr Mukwege had started a clinic in the bush where women with eviscerated vaginas would arrive for treatment. Rape is a tool of war. For 14 years an economic war has been fought for the minerals in the area. The militias are proxies for multinationals who need the minerals, the copper, the Coltan – all used in the manufacture of electronic devices. They have decimated the Congolese population,” said Ensler.

Dr Mikwege founded the Panzi hospital in Bukavu DRC several years after his original clinic had been burnt down and most of his staff murdered.

“The first time I went there were about 300 women, all patients, who had fistulas, or holes between their bladders, their anuses and vaginas because of being raped. I felt I had lost my mind that I had come to the end of the world where corporate greed and plunder was all being done on the bodies of women. This is what the corporate nightmare has brought,” she said.

Ensler spent several weeks with the women who told her that more than anything, they wanted a space that was their own, a place where they could be safe and thrive. Along with a Mama C, a Belgian and Congolese woman, Ensler began to design this space where women and their daughters could be educated, treated and looked after, a space that would turn out to be a separate city in a war zone.

“My job was to find the resources and I went back to the States to find money and support. The women had wanted to build the city themselves,” said Ensler.

It was while raising funds for the city that Ensler was diagnosed with cancer.

“While Mama C was dealing with the nightmare of contractors and trying to build this city, I was dealing with treatment for cancer. But if you want to survive and live, then live for something beyond yourself. I had to stay alive and at the end of my treatment I went back and the village, when the City of Joy, opened. So far 400 girls, who are rising in their communities, have graduated. It is an incredible place.”

Ensler’s surgery and treatment in the US had left her temporarily incontinent and when she arrived back in the DRC she said she felt, for the first time, what the women experienced physically.

“I could not stop weeping. It did something to my politics. I understood that rape can eviscerate our bodies to the point that we no longer have control over our bodily functions. That is horrifying to me. It escalated my commitment to ending violence against women and girls in the world.”

Ensler said that the reason why some men do not respond to rape – the issue of our times – is because men do not know what it feels like “to be invaded, to be ripped apart and to have the heart of your body and your existence violated in this way.”

The mind-numbing nature of data and statistics about the numbers of girls and women who are assaulted and raped globally just does not permit men to dwell on the actual physicality of rape and how it disembodies and atomises women.

“A woman spends the rest of her life, every single day, recovering from that experience. Every single thing you do from that moment forward, whether it is becoming intimate, having sex or not having sex, how you feel about yourself, how you bring up your boys, everything is coloured and shaped by that experience. We do not treat it like that.”

The work Ensler has done internationally in some way echoes what Braveheart did for South African women last week– she made or makes our bodies, the scene of so many crimes in this country, startlingly visible. DM

Main photo: Eve Ensler.

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