After two successful conferences, this blog by Jelke Boesten and Helen Scanlon briefly outlines where we are with the Gender Justice Memory Network project.

Krotoa was a Khoisan child in the mid-seventeenth century when she was enslaved by Jan Van Riebeeck, the Dutch VOC Commander who first colonised the Cape of South Africa. Krotoa partly grew up among these settlers, and learned both Dutch and Portuguese, allowing her to become an interpreter. She married a Danish VOC surgeon, had three children with him but later died on Robben Island having been banished there for “immoral behaviour” – for many testament to the fact that the policing of black South African women’s bodies can be traced to the onset of colonisation. Krotoa’s story parallels with Pocahontas, or Malinche: women who were violently forced into slavery, raped and appropriated. They represent the subordination of colonised populations through the rape of women, thereby humiliating the men, spreading the seed of the newcomers, who can then lay claim on the land. Therefore, they are rejected by indigenous men -the Tsenacommacah of Virginia, the Nahua of Mexico, the Khoisan of the Western Cape- as traitors. A 2017 South African movie depicted Krotoa, or Eva as she was baptised by the colonisers, as a conflicted soul, a woman between two cultures, in a foundational narrative in which the Khoi woman reconciles colonial violence with cultural adaptation and miscegenation. As such, this violent story of the colonisation of land and people during which the sexual appropriation of women played a vital role is once again turned into a story of love and respect for difference- foundational myths that serve contemporary political projects. In doing so, as June Bam explained in Cape Town, these romanticisations not only undo the violence of colonisation, but they overlook, or even normalise, the specific violence that women endured at the hands of both the colonisers as well as the rejection of their home communities. In a parallel to many women’s contemporary experiences with rape in conflict and peace globally, they were blamed for the rape they endured and/or rejected by their own families because of it.

The film ‘Krotoa’ won accolades in the international film community, but was widely criticised in South Africa where it was described as both “flawed” and “culturally insensitive”. Roberta Durrant, the director of the film, claims that her film aims to highlight the role of women in South African history, particularly indigenous women, as they have long been overlooked in the struggles that mark the establishment of South Africa as a nation. Highlighting the role of women on all sides of political struggles is very important in terms of gender equality and for our understanding of history. But it matters how women are included and portrayed if we want representing and recognising women’s role is to have a positive effect on transformative gender justice.

Our project ‘Gender Justice and Memory’ explores the relationship between women’s presence or absence in post-conflict memorial projects and their meaning in terms of symbolic reparation and transformative gender justice. Integral to the growth of reparations programmes within transitional justice processes has been emphasis on the need for symbolic reparations which are intended to preserve historical memory and restore the dignity of victims. Indeed demands by victims are almost without exception linked to calls for the recognition of their experiences through gestures of respect such as memorialisation, memory projects and public apologies. Underpinning the ‘Gender Justice and Memory’ project, is the recognition that gender-sensitive symbolic reparations are intrinsically linked to fulfilling transformative gender justice. That is symbolic reparations, both formal and informal, have the potential to achieve genuine change in gender relations and are critical if transitional justice processes are to have any significant positive effect on women and equality.

Research of our network members and others shows how formal sites of commemoration struggle with a transformative representation of women; there is a strong tendency to portray women in domestic roles -as nurses and caretakers, or as vulnerable and victim, or as mothers who have lost. Women’s agency is often buried under the display of masculine heroism of both fighting and dying. Thus, commemorative projects have a tendency to reproduce gendered stereotypes that herald men’s strength and independence, and women’s sexualised vulnerability and dependence. Such portrayals do not do justice to actual women, nor to the project of post conflict change. Not all contemporary sites of commemoration reproduce stereotypes; commemoration projects in Colombia and Peru explicitly depart from this tendency to offer a more nuanced and inclusive version of history. While not necessarily looking forward, at least the explicit inclusion of a much wider perspective in terms of gender as well as race, ethnicity and sexuality does make a refreshing example of change.

Alongside formal state-led commemoration, which inevitably revolves around struggles over the ownership of the historical narrative, and hence, is part of continuing political battles over power, there are multiple creative projects that aim to memorialise: most post-conflict societies boost theatre, literature, poetry, film, song, and visual arts that specifically deal with a collective traumatic past. Women are very much part of such cultural interventions, or counter-memories, both as authors as well as subjects. In some cases such works provide space for women to offer alternative views upon the past, and for gendered notions and stereotypes to be questioned. Art problematizes the way we understand the world, which is why art is an exceptionally good tool in the struggle for equality and transformative gender justice. But art is also still dominated by men, and a male worldview, and hence, female artists have to work hard to have their voices heard and to have their perspectives included in debates around historical memory.

The last element emerging from our collective project to understand the role of commemoration in struggles for gender justice is thus more activist: our network members showed how younger generations, generally post conflict generations, are willing and able to take history to the streets to protest the present. In particular in South Africa and Peru this tendency of feminist activists to use arts as a tool to engage wider audiences, and memory to engage a better future, is very clear. Bringing together the scholars experts on historical sites of memory and cultural counter-memory, the lawyers seeking justice and redress for past violations of human rights, and the activists seeking social transformation in the present, this project aims to discuss and document those struggles for an inclusive and transformative perspective upon memorialisation and reparation.