Who Cares for the Black Woman's Body?

by Moiyattu Banya

One evening I struggled to put together my lecture for the following day’s class, and I couldn’t figure out why I was so conflicted. My teaching was supposed to focus on women’s health and reproductive rights, but I struggled with what my key points and messaging should be. I reflected on why it was so hard to get the words to come out right on the PowerPoint slides. Every other lecture had been easy, but this one on sexual health and reproductive rights in the United States came with struggle. I simply couldn’t get the words out. I stopped, took a break and asked myself what main points I wanted my students to walk away with.

I asked myself the following questions: How does society value our bodies as black women? Who are the people in society that place any form of value on the lives of women? The sad reality that I often avoid surfaced. Our society has never valued the bodies of women, and has constantly utilized various forms of oppression particularly violence to re-emphasize this point.

To begin to answer my first question, I reflected on how three weeks ago a young lady by the name of Hannah was raped and murdered brutally as she walked down the street in my native country Sierra Leone. Hannah’s situation was one of many occurrences in the country and worldwide. What made this situation different was that the news of Hannah spread through online communities (i.e. WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram) by Sierra Leonean youth. Unfortunately, it seemed that the means by which various people raised awareness about the death of the girl was by sending photos of her dismembered corpse through social media. I paused in my tracks because I thought about how disrespectful it was to display a dead body of someone who had been brutally raped and killed. The incident reminded me once again of this notion that as women of color, our bodies are not valued in any part of the world.

Immediately after the news hit social media and general media spaces, the debates began. There were infuriating debates about the fact that the girl was raped because she was a sex worker and the issue of rape culture. Eventually, blame shifted towards the girl. There was the debate that it shouldn’t matter if she is a sex worker.

There was little to no discussion about how devaluing it was to circulate these photos of the girl. The proactive approach was missing. In a country that has been very progressive about implementing gender equality laws on paper, the practicality of this always falls to the way side. Sierra Leone implemented in 2007 three gender laws including the Domestic Violent Act, The Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act and the Devolution of Estates Act. Even with these laws it was evident that violence against Sierra Leone is still the norm in Sierra Leone. Therefore the conversation we should be having is about the ineffectiveness of laws that are meant to protect the lives of women.

Women have the power to tell our stories, as much as this can also be burden it is also necessary. My answer kept coming back to the women of Sierra Leone. What was missing from the discussion was the power dynamics behind the entire photo. Hannah was in a powerless situation as she had been killed and the entire society was utilizing her dead body as a means of talking about rape. The fact that the rest of society felt it was perfectly okay to showcase the body of this woman who was dead shows that the power rests in the hands of society on what should be said and done about women’s bodies. For me it was simple, if this indeed was the focus to raise awareness of these issues, we were going about this the wrong way. What would have been a more humane approach was to gather stories of women who wanted to speak on behalf of the rape and murder of Hannah or launching a photography project on women’s bodies to raise awareness on the violation of the bodies of Sierra Leonean women.

Nobody seemed to focus on this gendered aspect and how this girl’s body had been violated. As someone who is a strong women and girls activist, the situation infuriated me. I kept silent because I felt powerless, the same way I felt when I was working on my lectures for my students. There is something crippling about when a woman’s agency is being taken away from them. The only people who can take that power back and affirm the value on the lives of women are women themselves. This becomes problematic and tiring at times because women are expected to write on behalf of our bodies, protest when our bodies are violated and gather when we need to mourn. The women activists of Sierra Leone spoke that day.

Various women activists in Sierra Leone joined together as the group Power Women 232 to organize a march and a vigil in honor of Hannah’s life. These young women activists were enraged about the treatment of Hannah, and wanted to demand justice. Days after the vigil, a top level official offered to raise $1,000 to pay for whoever would be able to find the culprits. More than 80 percent of the country lives in poverty so that “award” may seem enticing to most people. However, it wasn’t enough. Once again the first thing that came to my mind was, “Are you kidding me?” Is that all this woman’s life is worth? Women of color are prime targets for violence.

Photo: Fatou Wurie / www.fatouwurie.com

In Sierra Leone violence against women and girls is on the rise according to research conducted on Violence Against Women in Sierra Leone. Many of women’s lived experiences of violence go undocumented. More measures should be put in place to document data statistics and stories, whilst ensuring that policies are taken more seriously. Sierra Leone is a society that has a legal system that criminalizes violence against women, but due to weak infrastructures of accountability laws are hardly enforced.

The bottom line is that there needs to be a shift in paradigm and culture around violence against women and rape. The fact that Hannah’s story disappeared quickly from headlines, and the ransom never increased past $1,000 points to a bigger problem. It shows that the priority is not about the bodies of women in this society. It also shows that this happens way more than often and affirms a eeringly true fact that indeed violence against women and disregarding these cases in our societies is the norm. It shows that more must be done in the form of writing our stories, policy and lobbying efforts, advocacy campaigns, grassroots organizing, in a consistent manner from a feminist standpoint.

The situation reminded me of the experiences of black women in the United States and around the world. The media does no justice on revealing information about our disappearances, killings, murders, rapes when they happen, and black women it is disregarded experience anytime violence. I remember vividly how the Ray Rice situation once again brought on that crippling feeling to me. People found it easier to blame Janay Rice, who had been beaten, than Ray Rice himself. The video that circulated to show the actual beating resonates so well with how Hannah’s photo was circulated when she was killed. Once again we notice this trend in the disregard for our lives. The culture embraced in the United States is that black women’s lives have never been valued, from the Eugenics movement where black women were being sterilized against their own will till present day.
Photo: Fatou Wurie / www.fatouwurie.com

Recently whilst in Accra, Ghana, I facilitated a workshop with a group of young African women leaders. I was a bit apprehensive to bring the workshop because it was less concrete to the other discussions and lectures they had been attending for the first two weeks of their session, which were focused on project planning, networking for success, and communication among other topics. My workshop focused on positive body image culture and our value as African women. I believed that doing this workshop would open dialogue in a space that needed this type of dialogue. I believed that since society is taking quite some time to catch up we must own the power over our own bodies and take the lead on ensuring black women’s bodies are always on the map. The workshop was embraced by the women and something that I found most striking was that most, if not all, of the women felt a sense in pride in their bodies. The women utilized storytelling to affirm how they would move forward embracing their bodies even more. These conversations need to continue within circles of women of color. The conversations that remind us of and affirm our feminine power and allow us to claim our spaces and our bodies.

I wished Hannah and many other black women who have been victims to violence in their societies had the chance to live and enjoy her freedom as a woman, but her society did not allow it. The burden shouldn’t rest on women alone but on society as a whole. Societies all over the world should value women more, particularly the bodies of black women, that have been traumatized for centuries and continue to experience various forms of violence.

I still struggled to put together the lecture that day, but I finally realized that the stories I had to share were inside of me. The most important lesson I needed my students to understand was that agency and the recognition of agency for our bodies starts with acknowledging the historical implications of violence on women’s bodies. Unfortunately these stories rest within our communities until we let them out, seek justice and ensure policies are implemented to protect our lives.

Photo: Shutterstock

Moiyattu Banya is a Native to Sierra Leone, a Digital Mover and Shaker, Feminist and a Writer. She currently teaches women studies courses at Temple University in the United States and also does international consulting with Social Enterprises in West Africa. She is Founder of Women Change Africa. Moiyattu is part of the African Women’s Development Fund’s (AWDF) Community of African Women Writers. Follow her on Twitter @WcaWorld

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