Women in Black: The Transformation
of Silence into Language and Action
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 (Knevic) 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Every day there’s a new face.
“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)
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.
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.
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)
Adams, Judith Porter. Peacework: Oral Histories of Women Peace Activists. Boston: Twayne-Hall, 1991.
Adorno, Theodor W. Prisms, trans. Samuel and Sherry Weber. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981.
American Friends Service Committee. “AFSC Nominates Women in Black for Nobel Peace Prize.” AFSC Newsroom. 13 December 2002. 27 May 2003. http://www.afsc.org/news/2003/ORG-121302.htm.
Annan, Kofi. “Secretary-General’s Statement to Security Council on Women, Peace, and Security.” United Nations Press Release. 28 October 2002. 27 May 2003. http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2002/sgsm8461.doc.htm.
“Another Skirmish with Al Qaeda.” CBS News.com. 3 July 2002. CBS Worldwide, Inc. 27 May 2003. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/07/03/attack/main514201.shtml.
“Black Sash Founder/Member Jean Sinclair Dies.” A.N.C. Daily News Briefing. 7 June 1996. African National Congress. 13 Oct. 2002. http://www.anc.org.za/anc/newsbrief/1996/news0607.
Black Sash. “Who We Are.” Black Sash. 3 Oct. 2002. <http://www.blacksash.org.za/Who.htm>.
Casey, Cassady. “Women in Black: Portrait of a Peace Movement.” Chronogram Magazine. December 2002. 27 May 2003. http://www.chronogram.com/backIssues/2002/1202/roomforaview/room_3.html.
Catling, Jo. “Silent Catastrophe: In Memoriam W. G. (Max) Sebald 1944 – 2001.” New Books in German. Spring 2003. 27 May 2003. http://www.new-books-in-german.com/featur27.htm.
Coalition of Women for Peace. “World-Wide Women in Black Vigils.” 24 May 2003. 27 May 2003. www.coalitionofwomen4peace.org.
Cockburn, Cynthia. “A Short History of Women in Black.” Women in Black: For Justice. Against War. 27 May 2003. http://www.justpeacetech.org/wib/history.html.
Dinur, Esty. “The Determined Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.” Reprinted from Women’s International Net Magazine 44 (June 2002). 12 Oct. 2002. http://www.fire.or.cr/junio01/mothers2.htm.
Emmett, Ayala. Our Sisters' Promised Land: Women, Politics, and Israeli-Palestinian Coexistence. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1996.
Ettin, Andrew Vogel. Speaking Silences: Stillness and Voice in Modern Thought and Jewish Tradition. Charlottesville: U P of Virginia, 1994.
Ferguson, Kathy E. Kibbutz Journal: Reflections on Gender, Race, and Militarism in Israel. Pasadena: Trilogy Books, 1995.
Grunblatt, Ellen. “Re: What we think about silence at the vigils.” E-mail to the author. 9 Sept. 2002.
Healey, Craigen. “Re: What we think about silence at the vigils.” E-mail to the author. 8 Sept. 2002.
Helman, Sara and Tamar Rapoport. “Women in Black” challenging Israel’s gender and socio-political orders.” British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 45, No. 4. December 1997. 681-700.
Kimber, Rita. “WIB Thoughts.” E-mail to the author. 15 Sept. 2002.
Knevic, Dubravka. “Marked with Red Ink.” Theatre Journal, Vol. 48. 1996. 407-418.
Kreutz, Eileen. “Re: What we think about silence at the vigils.” E-mail to the author. 16 and 21 Sept. 2002.
Liddy, Eileen. “Re: What we think about silence at the vigils.” E-mail to the author. 19 Sept. 2002.
Marcus, Jonathan. “Bombing that Went Wrong.” BBC News, World Edition. 2 July 2002. 27 April 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/2083171.stm.
Pearson, Susan. “Impressions from Women in Black.” E-mail to the author. 19 Sept. 2002.
Pettitt, Ann. “Transcription: Ann Pettitt (Ref:12745) on methods of non-violent protest.” Greenham Common: The Women’s Peace Camp, 1981-2000. Imperial War Museum. 12 Oct. 2002. http://www.iwm.org.uk/online/greenham/Pettitt1.htm.
Rawlings, Judy. “Re: What we think about silence at the vigils.” E-mail to the author. 16 Sept. 2002.
Sharoni, Simona. Gender and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Politics of Women's Resistance. Syracuse: Syracuse U P, 1995.
“Suffragists to Increase Squads at White House Until March 4.” Washington Post, Jan. 11, 1917. Roland Marchand. “Ideas and Strategies of the Woman Suffrage Movement.” A History Teacher’s Bag of Tricks. 1999-2001. U C Davis. 7 Sept. 2002. marchand.ucdavis.edu/lessons/suffrage/suffrage.html.
Svirsky, Gila. “Attacks on Women in Black in Israel.” Online posting. 4 May 2003. Feminist Peace Network, message #2761. 4 May 2003.
“Timeline.” Long Night’s Journey into Day: South Africa’s Search for Truth and Reconciliation. Iris Films. 13 Oct. 2002. http://www.irisfilms.org/longnight/ln_history03.htm.
United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. 31 October 2000. 27 May 2003. http://www.un.org/events/res_1325e.pdf.
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966.
Zene u Crnom. We Are Still in the Streets. Belgrade, January 2001.