OP-ED

When Human Rights are trampled, the public holiday is another Thursday to wear black

By Juliana Claassens 20 March 2019

Illustrative image. Photo: Adobestock

We celebrate Human Rights Day on 21 March. On this public holiday when people will be taking a break from their regular activities – perhaps visiting friends, catching up on sleep or doing chores – how many of us will pause to reflect on why we have a day like this at all?

We commemorate Human Rights Day precisely because our country, for much of this past century, has not honoured people’s right to dignity, freedom and safety. And one only has to look at the shocking statistics released every year by the South African Police Force regarding rape and other forms of gender-based violence to realise that human rights violations are not a thing of the past. Human rights are gender rights after all.

This year Human Rights Day falls on a Thursday. A couple of months ago at Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Theology, a few of us started to wear black as part of the Thursdays in Black movement, which is a World Council of Churches initiative to end gender-based violence.

Every week there are more of us, with positive peer pressure and conscientisation drawing an increasing number of lecturers, staff and students who are all starting to wear black one day a week. Some of the wardrobe choices among the participants are quite interesting. Moreover, during the stifling hot weather of February, the late summer sales were utilised to buy something that was both black and cool. On Valentine’s Day, it was quite a challenge for some participants who still wanted to wear red. There were some rather creative solutions, like painting toes a brilliant red.

At the launch of the Thursdays in Black initiative, it was touching to see how women from a whole range of different areas were speaking about why they decided to join the movement. Tannie Minnie, one of our support staff, who has been working at the faculty for 16 years and who has been one of our most avid supporters (probably selling more pins than anyone else), shared how this initiative is deeply existential for her in her community that has seen more than its share of violence.

One of our administrative assistants, Estelle, grew up in a very protected middle-class context and told us how she is not really an activist and never thought she would be. However, here among all the other women and men who are starting to show their solidarity with gender-based violence, she realised that wearing black on a Thursday is something that she can do to show her support for victims of gender injustice.

And then there are the students who carry Thursdays in Black over to the main campus and the residences and neighbourhoods where they live. Who tell us that we urgently need to order more pins, because there are many students across campus who also want a sign that tells the world why they wear black on a Thursday.

So I was thinking, what is the reason for the success of Thursdays in Black? In the first instance, it is giving a voice to those who do not always have a voice. To wear black becomes a visible sign of saying “No”, of saying “Don’t treat me like this”.

This can occur on an individual level, but it also happens on a collective level when a community is saying that this is not who we want to be. The choice to wear black becomes a way in which women who are in situations of oppression are able to “speak” where they have been silenced.

We have seen colleagues deciding to wear Thursdays in Black “Monday edition”, or “Friday edition”, so serving as a vivid reminder of where things are not right. And I have a colleague, Nobuntu, who says that she wears black every single day because the violence in her immediate world, but also nationally and globally, is just so intense, that one day a week does not suffice. She says she will wear black until violence has been eradicated.

Second, this action of wearing black on Thursdays, which is spreading slowly but surely throughout our faculty and also in other places on campus, is a visible sign of solidarity. By wearing black, by making a decision on a Thursday morning to put on a black dress or a black shirt, people have the agency to say that they stand with those who are suffering gender violence and gender injustice.

The moment when you put on your black clothes, you make a conscious decision that you want to join with others who already have decided to stand up for the cause that unites old and young, men and women, white, coloured and black, gay and straight. We do this in the acknowledgement that the one thing that sadly unites this country is the fact that sexual violence does not discriminate based on race or class or sexual orientation.

Finally, individually and collectively, to wear black on a Thursday can be described in terms of what philosopher José Medina from Northwestern University calls epistemological narratives of resistance. Every individual wearing black on a Thursday functions as a visible sign, as stories of resistance that may have the effect of changing people’s minds and hearts. To see all these people wearing black on a Thursday is a compelling reminder that we have not yet gained the human rights culture that we commemorate on Human Rights Day.

However, as more women and men are standing up, taking a stand and doing this through the clothes they wear on one specific day of the week, we may be reminded not only once a year, but once a week, that we will not have succeeded in cultivating a human rights culture until we have come to accept that human rights also constitute gender rights. DM

Source: Medina, J 2013. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations (Studies in Feminist Philosophy). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Prof Juliana Claassens is Chair of the Department of Old and New Testament and Head of the Gender Unit in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.

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