Earlier this month, Marai Larasi told a room full of people that it’s time to “reground ourselves.” “We seem,” she said, “to have forgotten that violence against women and girls is not inevitable. Systemic and stubborn, certainly, but not inevitable.”
The message from the Women Deliver Conference was a familiar one: silence surrounding gender based violence must be broken. It continues to hang too thickly and too heavily. Under it’s weight lurks that same awful statistic: 1 in 3 women have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime.
And yet, as Vivian Onano so simply stated: “We’re not supposed to talk about it.” How can such smothering silence possibly be broken? “We must,” continued Onano, “work harder to create safe and open spaces to discuss violence against women and girls.” It sounds so simple in theory–a no-brainer.
In the same session, Larasi said that “we cannot underestimate the ripple effect of pushing against the tide.” This may well be the case, but the fact remains that even talking about gender based violence constitutes pushing against the tide. There are still so few safe and open spaces and such a heavy cloak of stigma thrown over all of our shoulders, that speaking up goes against what we feel we are supposed to do.
Our voices are the single most vital mechanism behind any strategy with a chance of success. We know that they are our best tools, our trump cards. And yet raising them, even to a whisper, remains the exceptional thing to do.
As I listened, I was reminded at once of something I’d read online. The Unconventional Apology Project is a portrait and interview series by LA-based artist, Chantal Barlow, featuring survivors of domestic violence in the US. Using what she describes as “survivorship storytelling,” Barlow showcases first-hand accounts of “triumph over domestic violence” in the hope that they will spark a critical discourse on how society perceives and portrays those affected by gender-based violence.
Behind the project is a profoundly moving story. On June 1975, Barlow’s grandfather shot and killed her grandmother, Mableine Nelson Barlow, during a drunken rampage two days after their divorce was finalized. Thanks to high-powered connections and corrupt law enforcement, he was never held accountable by law for what he did. His children repressed the memory of their mother in order to survive the loss, and as a result, Mableine and her memory faded into silence.
Years later, having found religion and sobriety, her grandfather’s involvement in the lives of his family was left untainted by the cold-blooded crime he committed. Learning of his violent act only once she was in her teens, Barlow was “internally conflicted for many years to come.” Upon his death, she was left with the camera he had loved so dearly.
It was a year later, in 2014, that she used the camera to take her first photograph of a survivor of domestic violence: “My grandfather was never held accountable for my grandmother’s murder. Using his camera to amplify the voices of domestic violence survivors symbolically forces him to face the effects of his actions.”
The interviews in the series contain graphic accounts of violence that are genuinely distressing to read. The photographs though, show no blood or tears or black eyes. The brightly-lit portraits are of women smiling and sometimes laughing. The colors are vivid; be it in the eyes, earrings, lipstick or clothes. These are not silent photographs.
It’s well-established that the focus needs to be on increasing prevention before gender based violence occurs. We know that to increase prevention, we have to tackle the societal norms that allows violence to thrive smugly in the comfortable shade of silence. We know, too, that the way to tackle silence is to talk.
The Unconventional Apology Project has carved out a pocket of space that is not only open and safe, but beautiful to look at and life-affirming to read. It stands to prove that silence, however smothering, can always be broken and that everyone’s voice is valuable in doing so.
So, set aside a little time today to marvel at the Unconventional Apology Project. Send the link to your mother, daughter, sister, girlfriend, best friend, and colleague. While you’re at it, send it to your father, son, brother, boyfriend, and neighbor too. Then start talking. Silence is no longer an acceptable option.
Feature Photo Credit: Chantal Barlow, Unconventional Apology Project