Silent Words: A Reflection on "Protest and Praxis Reflection on GBV and Faith: #Unsilencing the Silence"

Written by Lyn van Rooyen

Today is the day on which my mouth is taped. 

I am doing this together with 100s of others as part of a Silent Protest. This is in the middle of a four day "Protest and Praxis Reflection on GBV and Faith: #Unsilencing the Silence" that I am attending at the Pietermaritzburg Campus of UKZN.

So, with black tape over my mouth, I cannot talk, eat or drink for many hours. The idea is that we symbolise the way in which society silences the victims of sexual and gender-based violence.

This is why the mouths of those who identify openly as survivors were not taped - and they were the ones placing the tape on the mouths of participants. 

Although we are silent, there are many activities. The students continue with their normal university day - with their purple shirts and back-taped mouths. There were opportunities to take part in yoga, art, prayers, to contribute to a quilt of solidarity. 

There was even a die-in. We lay in a public pathway on the campus in a symbolic death to commemorate the thousands of deaths due to sexual and gender-based violence.

So, my mouth is still. I might look quiet. 

But there are words and sentences and paragraphs milling in my head. Words and sentences and paragraphs that begs the question – what must I do with this?

The words milling in my head are not sanitised or pretty.

“The first time I was raped...…the second time I was raped….”

“I was abused from before I could walk until I was 12..”

“I am a pastor, I wear dresses like this (nearly to her ankles) and still I was raped.”

“People can’t understand that while my boyfriend was raping me, I was praying. I was praying for his daughter from another relationship. I was praying that this should never happen to her.”

"I was raped when I was 9, I was raped when I was 19, I was raped when I was 39...."

“After my pastor raped me he prayed out loud for forgiveness from the book of Psalms. He also forced me to pray with him for forgiveness.

“I was the cute and much loved little girl, but when our neighbour’s son touched me inappropriately for many years, I already new to ‘be still...’. I knew that I had to be quiet and not speak about this.”

“At Bible School they told us never to be alone with a woman, as they are temptresses who will try to tempt us. This makes it easy for pastors to put the blame on women if they do sexual things that are wrong.”

“I thought this was a thing of the townships, I did not think it happened in clean white houses but now I hear differently.”

 “I have been raped more than eight times.”

“The Bible hurts society, hurts queer society. We need to disrupt Biblical Voices.”

“Our pastor has sessions with young people planning to get married. He tells young women in front of their future husbands to be that they need to make their bodies available to their husbands at all times. He says that they must be like a 24-hour garage, always available if their husbands need petrol.”

“There is a fear of imagining a world without violence. Our lives are shaped by violence.”

“We are told to see violence as a test from God. This is the bandage we cover our pain with.”

“I don’t know how old I was, but I know I was old enough to already feel like an outsider. He made me feel special, that this was something that he would not do with other little girls. Although I knew it was wrong, it made me feel good and loved and special. I was also physically aroused – so off course I knew it was my fault.”

“When the church constantly tells me to ‘count my blessings’ or ‘celebrate the goodness of God’ I can’t speak about the bad things in my life.”

“I have a son as a result of the rape, how must I look at him every day and love him, and not see the deed that produced him in him.”

“The same me who is an abuser and the same me who is abused – when I go into the church I am someone else.”

“In many churches we have cleaned up our spaces – the pulpit, the communion table and the baptismal font – so much that we do not have space to be angry at injustice and brutality anymore.”

 “The church is our Absalom. Like Absalom silenced Tamar, the church takes what we are saying and then tells us to be quiet about what happened.”

“GBV and HIV are intertwined in cycles of cause and effect.”

“Why do we associate rape with sex – rape is not sex, so don’t ask me if I was a virgin as if rape is not important if I have had sex before. I have heard: ‘but you are doing in anyway.’

I have many words in my head.

I also heard “at least” many times

“At least I was only molested”,

“At least I was only raped and not killed”, 

“At least he was nice to me afterwards”, 

“At least no one knew”, 

“At least I did not get pregnant/get HIV”.

In the hours that I have been silent I have tried to silence these words, these words of pain and abuse and brutality that I cannot even imagine.

But these words will no longer be silenced.

These words can no longer be silenced.

The words on the back and front of a young man’s poster calls out to me: “The church should not be silent”, “The church should not silence.”

          

These posters and this young man call on me to continue to challenge rape culture and call out injustice - tomorrow, and the next day and the next.

And now we are preparing to walk together to the Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary for the #Unsilencing the Silence Liturgical Ritual. 

My mouth will be opened, the tape will be pulled off, my voice will be audible again.

For many victims of violence this never happens.

So, tomorrow, when I wear Black like on every #ThursdayinBlack, I will speak louder, I will challenge more, I will stand straighter.

Tomorrow, and the next day and the next week We Will Speak Out SA members will continue to make our voices heard in the church and outside of it. We will continue to challenge unhealthy theologies, to equip and support faith leaders, to advocate together, to support networks of survivors and to work with survivors in the centre.

I do this because I believe...

...because I believe

in a God who created male and female equally in God’s image,

...because I believe

in a God who became Body to bring life abundantly to all bodies,

...because I believe

in a God whose continued presence recreates and allows us to co-create a new reality.

Because I believe

in a God who invites and compels me to #Unsilence the Silence.

 

"Protest and Praxis Reflection on GBV and Faith: #Unsilencing the Silence" was held from 5-8 August at the Pietermaritzburg Campus of UKZN, co-hosted by The Gender and Religion Programme and the Ujamaa Centre at UKZN, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, ACT Ubumbano and We Will Speak Out South Africa.