Women in Black: The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action
by Lee Sharkey

Black is the color that we wear;
Black, the color that speaks our anger.
Silence is the language that we speak;
Silence, a language that voices our anguish.
—from a brochure circulated at the Fourth
World Conference on Women, Beijing, 1995 (Casey)

Confronted daily by the casualties of war and other culturally embedded forms of violence, many of us feel struck dumb. Given the continual sacrifice of the lives of children, women, and men to ideologies of destruction, what possible language of grief and outrage, what gestures of political protest, will suffice? No Newspeak of “collateral damage” undoes the injuries and deaths. What poetry will reveal the irresponsibility of U.S. spokesman Colonel Roger King’s observation after the bombing of an Afghan wedding feast that “The easiest and best way to avoid civilian casualties is to avoid firing at coalition forces in the proximity of innocent civilians” (qtd. in “Another Skirmish”) or the foreshortened perspective of the BBC’s editorial observation that “Accidental civilian deaths are sadly an inevitable product of modern warfare” (Marcus par. 4)? On the darkest days, Theodor Adorno’s reflections on the world post-Nazi Holocaust perfectly express our sense of the times we’re living through: “There is no longer beauty or consolation except in the gaze falling on horror, withstanding it, and in unalleviated consciousness of negativity holding fast to the possibility of what is better” (qtd. in Catling)

In 1988, in response to the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada, a group of women began weekly silent vigils in a busy shopping center in Jerusalem, calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of territories conquered in the 1967 war. The same year, a group of Italian women “aim[ing] to promote dialogue between women on different ‘sides’” in conflict situations visited Israel and Palestine (Cockburn, “Italian Women”). Returning to Italy, they formed Donne in Nero to support Israeli/Palestinian peace initiatives (Cockburn, “Italian Women”) as well as to “protest the violence of [. . . ] organized crime” (AFSC par. 3). Three years later, they traveled to war-torn Belgrade (Cockburn, “Women in Serbia”), where Serbian women began what has become “a permanent, public, non-violent protest against war, against the nationalistic and militant regime in Serbia, ethnic cleansing and all forms of discrimination” (Zene u Crnom 1). The vigils were among the earliest acts of overt opposition to the Milosevic regime (Casey, “War Zone Vigils”).

And so it spread, informally, a quiet revelation, to Spain, Belgium, England, Australia, Argentina, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Egypt, England, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Macedonia, Mexico, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Scotland, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and these United States (Coalition), where new groups now spring up weekly in response to the continuing “War on Terrorism.” The Coalition of Women for Peace lists 273 Women in Black vigils worldwide on its website, by no means a comprehensive tally. Their political agendas differ, but the principle is the same: opposition to war and violence, which disproportionately affect women and children (UN Resolution, Annan), and to the institutional structures that support them.

Three years into a second and more deadly Intifada, vigils continue in Israel, their minimalist (Helman) political theater (Knežvic) the rallying point for the peace work Women in Black and their coalition partners undertake on a daily basis. For the second time, Women in Black has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize (AFSC). Around the world, women wearing black stand silently every week in central locations in our towns, our “gaze falling on horror,” our presence insisting that the work of transformation begin, begin again, begin.

Silent, not silenced. Out in the open. On the main street under the sky. Simply too tired of argument to argue. Simply feeling too much to deflect feeling to language. Simply watching. When it is time, then we will open our mouths.

Some foremothers and sisters

1917. Alice Paul’s Woman’s Party’s “Silent Sentinels” for suffrage take their places at the White House gates. The women wear “yellow, purple and white ribbons across their chests, [stand] three on either side of the gates, over each of which [is] held a banner, inscribed, ‘Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?’” (Suffragists)

1955. Six middle-class white women decide over tea to “do something about” a political maneuver of the apartheid South African government that aims at striking “coloureds” from the voting rolls (ANC Daily News Briefing). They organize silent marches and vigils, naming themselves by the black sashes they wear to these public protests “to mourn ‘the death of the constitution’” (ANC); they set up “advice offices for those deprived of their basic rights” (Black Sash: Who We Are). The six women become 10,000 marching (Timeline).

1961. Women Strike for Peace “evolve[s] out of an international protest against atmospheric nuclear testing [. . .] to voice concern, in particular, about the hazards posed by such testing to children’s health.” The women commit civil disobedience wearing white gloves, hats, and heels. “I always thought that was a real protection,” recounts Ethel Barol Taylor,” until [we were arrested. . . .] We decided we weren’t going to be yanked by our armpits, we were going to walk like ladies to the police van. [. . .] We got to the jail [. . . .] I looked out, and there was a five-foot drop to the ground. I waited for the policeman to help me down. The policeman came around and said, ‘Jump, sister.’ So I jumped into an entirely new world” (Adams 12).

1977. Women whose children have been “disappeared” by the military junta in Argentina begin to gather every day on the square before the government building in Buenos Aires. Wearing white head scarves, they carry banners demanding information about their missing children and a return to democracy in Argentina. The Madres and Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo are still organizing—against the impunity laws that leave the members of the former junta beyond the reach of prosecution, and for information about the children born to their imprisoned—and then murdered—daughters, who were secretly adopted by families with ties to the regime. “With our children,” says Estella Bartes de Carlotto, “the present was kidnapped; with the grandchildren, they tried to kidnap the future. We have been trying to rescue that future" (qtd. in Dinur).

1981. Women protesting the siting of Cruise Missiles at Greenham Common Air Base in England set up the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp. Ann Pettitt, one of the protesters, describes the “explosion of imagination that took place [. . .] once it became [. . .] clearly defined as a women’s protest.” In one action, women disrupt “the work of expanding the camp [. . . .] by lying in the ditches [. . .] and webbing themselves up [. . .] with wool [. . .] so when a policeman picked one up, she was all tangled up with wool to the next one. [. . .] [T]hey lost a whole day’s work [. . .] because the women were tied up with wool. It was as simple as that.”

January, 1988. A group of women begin staging weekly silent vigils in a busy shopping center in Jerusalem, dressed in black and carrying signs: a black hand with white letters reading “End the Occupation.” The vigils spread across Israel until they number more than three dozen; in the northern region, Palestinian Israeli women join their Jewish counterparts (Cockburn, “Beginnings in Israel”). Women in the vigils regularly meet with hollered cries of “Fuck you” and “Arafat’s whores” and threats of violence (Ferguson 79), which more than once have led to physical attack (Svirsky). “No peace demonstrations that include [. . .] men elicit [. . .] such violent reaction” (Emmett 29). Israeli women peace activists see their protests “in an international context, pointing to other examples of women’s struggles for peace such as Madres de [la] Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, the Black Sash in South Africa, and the women of Greenham Common in England” (Cockburn par. 1, Sharoni 118).

Women in Black, Farmington

A man comes up to the Women in Black vigil in Farmington, Maine, commanding our attention with a “Ladies . . . Ladies,” until we turn our heads reluctantly in his direction. “Ladies, I can’t wait until we bomb the crap out of Iraq.” He stalks off, momentarily appeased, while we stand silently reflecting on the encounter. Unadorned, unapologetic in our rag-tag blacks, we hardly present ourselves as “ladies.” Nor do we want any part of his paradigm of war and chivalry, of courtesy and contempt.

Erella Shadmi and Kathy E. Ferguson have noted “the importance of Women in Black’s body language—women standing on the open streets”—and the complex symbolizations of their presence (Ferguson 104-05):

women wearing black, standing in silence, mourning death—these are familiar images, readily understood within conventional feminine imagery. But to be located in such a public place, unprotected by the norms of interaction regulating conduct in more traditional spaces, holding signs that insist on a kind of speech that many see as taboo [. . .] these practices interrupt the traditional imagery. (Ferguson 104-05)

our grieving won’t be sequestered
you’ll walk by it on your way

In Israel, counter demonstrators flaunt the blue and white Israeli flag and call the Women in Black “black widows” (Emmett 23), blaming them for Israeli casualties. In Farmington, where we’re occasionally called “traitors,” black interrupts and absorbs the red, white, and blue that unfurls from the bank whose windows reflect our black-clad figures and that streams (screams?) from the antennas of passing cars. We are traitors to nationalism. We claim the history and power of women’s grief across time and borders. Standing together in public in black in silence we redefine “woman” as “democratic citizen,” of a community, a country, the world.

. . . . . . . . . before the doors of power
what I have to tell
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .has swallowed my tongue
it is not I
. . . . . . . .stand here
so many of us
. . . . . . . . . . . .nothing (everything) to lose

How My Sisters See the Silence

Ellen Grunblatt: I accept the silence as part of the street theater, but it makes me uncomfortable. When I stand there I am aware of feeling silenced, as women have historically been silenced. I am aware of women's silence serving as a blank slate on which others, usually men, have written their fear and sometimes their hate. I am often afraid. I watch the young muscle guys in their hot cars or old junkers, the men my age and the old men who have probably seen war up close, and wonder what they are thinking. The tight-lipped women who stride by us, not looking at us, their own fear showing—they all but bare their teeth.

Craigen Healy: This time of vigil focuses my mind for [. . .] prayer. I silently pray for those who plan terrorist acts against the US and for political leaders of our country and others whose goals make them my enemies in the competition for decision-making power in the world. I also pray for the healing of men, women and children whose losses in war make them sad, injured, vulnerable. I have meditated on Jesus' words, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God," and prayed for guidance to become a peacemaker.

Eileen Kreutz: A Zen Saying: "Don't Just Do Something, Stand There." Along with others, men and women of like beliefs, I Stand There. The comments of people passing by, the horns honking, the occasional jeers, even the nods and thumbs-up signs of support wash past me unanswered.

I do nothing about any of it. I simply stand there. Stand there against war, against rape as a tool of war, opposing the destruction of people in conflicts around the world. I stand also against the rape of the earth itself, this planet with its fragile resources.

Silence lets it all sink in—and offers a place from which to begin to sort it out. I simply offer my caring and concern to the universe, for what it's worth.

Rita Kimber: I remember when growing up [in Switzerland] during WWII and later wondering how a whole people could be led by Hitler and swearing that I would not stand by without protest if in my time the country I called my own seemed headed in that direction. I guess that's been at the root of whatever feeble activism I've been part of these last thirty or so years.
Silence is part of Quaker Meeting [. . .] in the silence we try to feel our connection to God or the world soul or whatever you want to call it. I do some of that on Fridays [. . .] trying to be an atom weighing in on the side of peace in the great universe.

Susan Pearson: For years I have been grieving global cruelty and suffering, to the point that it was drowning me. The strength of our stand together is, for me, a life raft. I dare to feel the pain of human cruelty when others join me there. I feel less obligation to carry it all when I know that I am not carrying it alone.

Meditations in silence
I go down
in the nebula
stir up an image
a girl’s face a photograph
I know it only
in the aftermath
of her execution
as a collaborator

Every day there’s a new face.
I kneel in a corpse-strewn field.

For weeks I meditate on the Furies, their unquenchable appetite for retributive justice, and on ravens, their ability to transform death to living flesh.

raven’s gargled p-taaaw
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .then screams
. . . . . . . .upflight
three figures rowing air
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . now I see
are a pair
. . . . . . . . .and one behind
the chase
. . . . . . . . and the triumphant

Inside our stillness I am singing with Virginia Woolf, “[L]et the daughters [. . .] dance round the new house, the poor house, the house that stands in a narrow street where omnibuses pass and the street hawkers cry their wares, and let them sing, ‘We have done with war! We have done with tyranny!’ And their mothers will laugh from their graves, ‘It was for this that we suffered obloquy and contempt!’ Light up the windows of the new house, daughters! Let them blaze!” (83).

The women’s silhouettes are cutouts in space
all that silence with nothing rushing through
until we know the streaming flecks of fire
for skulls
vortex of milk
mild eyes

Reading the silence

“Surely within what we are inclined to imagine as silence actually exists a fully developed network of subaudible communication. [. . .] What we imagine as silence may only be the quiet intensity of a conversation too fundamental for us to hear or a concentration too complex for words or movement.” Andrew Vogel Ettin (74, 77)

[N]ot silence at all, but sounds, the ambient sounds. The nature of these is unpredictable and changing. These sounds (which are called silence only because they do not form part of a musical intention) may be depended on to exist. The world teems with them. John Cage (qtd. in Ettin 75)

as if from the depths of a pool
where skin’s entire surface is conscious
where limbs’ every impulse scores fugues everlasting

[We] are generally not tuned to two monologues constantly carried on within us, synchronously but not synchronized, harmoniously (one hopes) but not harmonized, on the highest and lowest levels of our being. Unless we make the effort deliberately to be still, we will not hear the discourse of our heart or that of our finest nerves. Andrew Vogel Ettin (76)

This silence holds the silenced in its arms.

The efficacy of silent protest

Judy Rawlings: I'm not sure if silence is an effective political tool. I'm more certain that it is the tool that I'm most comfortable with. I've demonstrated against war and violence using other "tools" and I find the silence most useful for delivering a message of peace. It's very difficult to argue against silence.

Eileen Liddy: I think it may depend on the event. For W[omen] I[n] B[lack], I think it is effective if passersby know we are silent and why we are silent, but for those that just see women and men standing there, I'm not sure. Those that take our handouts learn about the silence, so that is an important thing to continue doing.

Susan Pearson: I see [silence] as opening a door, inviting new ways of thinking and responding. To stand in silence is to grieve the unspeakable horrors committed in the name of self-defense. It is a powerful reminder of loss—loss of home, of those we love, of safety, culture, health, the natural world, and hope. Silent vigil provides space for entry into the construction of reality that women’s voice has been. And that voice has been for too many centuries ignored, degraded, or absent. To invite others into a new understanding, a safe entryway must be prepared.

Audre Lorde wrote, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Combat is the master’s tool I seek to resist. I struggle daily against the pull to combat, as a method of perceiving and a method of responding. . . .


Susan Pearson: As we dress in black each week, we insert the face of grieving into the daily life of the community. Repetition of this image holds the promise of cutting through the cultural numbing which arises from too many images, too much distracting information, too little follow-up about consequences, and too many simulated worlds. The image of our vigil leaves a clear space for the imaginations of those who pass us to integrate their own experiences into the gaps left by the silence.

[T]he cast was already on the bare stage when the curtain went up. . . . the featured dancer . . . was downstage, at rest in first position, totally still.

Then she was in motion. She did not begin to move; she was simply suddenly moving. At one moment she might have been the photograph of a dancer illustrating a preparatory stance; there was not a flicker of process, of tension, of flex; not even the abdominal pulsations of deep precursory breathing [. . . .] In the next instant energy surged through her. . . .

. . . . Yet one could not say at what instant the movement commenced; it was simply there. The moment of apparent rest preceding it was as remarkable as the first movement, and as important. . . . it too was simply there. Andrew Vogel Ettin (72)

we have lost
. . . . . . . . . . . .everything
. . . . . . . . . a stone
into the water
. . . . . . . . . . . . .what can you do
to us
. . . . . .you have already done
we came
. . . . . . . . . a long way
to re
. . . . . .mind you

The silence speaks.

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