Being a woman in war times: testimonies denouncing war crimes and releasing the voices of victims

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Women from Colombia go on stage to bear witness of the war, to condemn the horrors endured by millions of victims and to break the taboo around rape.

Women are born free and equal to men in rights” Olympe de Gouges wrote, in the first article of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen (1791). The former was a playwright in the 18th century and an important figure instrumental in the French feminism of that time. Since the 18th century, the people’s status in society has evolved in France and around the world. To some extent, what was Olympe de Gouges’s dream and ideal, i.e. gender equality, has somewhat become reality.

However, as soon as a war breaks out, the fragile balance of society is destroyed by par the destructive power of firearms and the ideal of gender equality is wrecked with it. It collapses. Thereby, Éric Massé, the producer of the play entitled Mujer Vertical, is wondering: what would it be like to live the life of a woman in war times?

Last year was marked by an enriching cultural exchange between Colombia and France. Numerous projects arose and helped to tighten the links between the two countries. Lots of Colombians are committed to the peace process of the country and their work has been acknowledged in 2017. The Colombian government and the communist rebels who created the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are attempting to reconcile with each other after fifty-two years of conflict.

Hearing the victims’ voices in order to deliver a universal message:

Thanks to these very dynamic cultural events, some Colombian women dare to denounce the trivialization of violence in a context of war and raise awareness on the issue of gender equality. While these women are invisible in the eyes of the Colombian society, which is deeply misogynistic and patriarchal, Éric Massé heard their voices.

They are given a voice on stage, in the play Mujer Vertical. With Alejendra Borrero, a famous telenovelas actress, the stage director helps these women who went through the atrocity of the war become actresses, poets who are embracing their past. They perform on stage, play their own role and tell their life journey to the audience. Moreover, they read on stage the pieces of work written by renowned feminist activists such as Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Veil, but also Virginie Despentes and the Colombian Florence Thomas.

The testimonies echo the extracts of novels and political speeches in a moving reflection on the empowerment of women. A universal message is therefore delivered thanks to art.

Women or war trophies?

Since the beginning of time, violence has always been an issue. As soon as a country goes to war, it seems like women are systematically raped and violated. Colombia is not an exception. Why are women’s body considered as war trophies? Is it possible to live as a woman in war times without suffering from the culture of war? As the tensions are pacifying in Colombia, those questions are being raised.

Facing the barrier of silence, of the unsaid, some people have decided to get involved in the fight against taboos and to go beyond the disagreements that tear society apart in the hope that changes will follow. Listening to each other, and discussing seem to be the first step toward reconciliation. These exchanges enable the civilian victims to meet and debate with former enemies, either brainwashed women from paramilitary groups or left-wing revolutionaries. These women, all together on stage, bear witness shedding light on abuses and tell their story wholeheartedly. As a result, the divide between the ones we call “responsible” and those regarded as “victims” is wrecked and falls to pieces.

Every single point of view, each personal experience becomes a reality that ought to be listened to. “Todos somos víctimas!” one of the actresses cries, i.e. “We are all victims!”.

As a woman, my claim is that my differences should be considered, I should not be forced to adapt to a male role model” Simone Veil

Ana Milena Riveros compares herself to a sort of Cinderella whose everyday life is basically to cook and serve the meals, to carry out housekeeping without protesting. She recalls her painful past and her career in a paramilitary group. She confides her suffering of having to conceal her femininity during the years of conflict to the audience. She could not be at ease with her feminine characteristics. Hiding, dissimulating her female body to protect herself from the brutality of men, from rape, and abuse which is commonplace in Colombia and especially in war times. She grew up in a society where no one talked about rape, even though it was a part of the life for the majority of Colombian women, the first victims of war. « La mujer es la primera víctima de la guerra » she said, grimly. She smiled again talking about the first time she began to put on makeup and wear high heels for the performances of Mujer Vertical. Indeed, as she was working in a male universe, where abuse of power was frequent and where sexual assaults were a constant threat, she had to adapt by adopting an androgynous style and mimicking the attitude of a hardy, tough soldier.

Every day, Mum is standing beside me, and I know that what I have accomplished in my life so far is thanks to her” Simone Veil, A Life.

Julisa Murillo who is the leader of the Afro-Colombian movement and victim of the war, is the epitome of the selfless love that a mother can give to her children. A mother is capable of doing anything for her offspring. She describes a painful episode of her life: one day, her daughter was kidnapped by an illegal armed group. She was freed in exchange for her mother’s body. Julisa was molested by men she defines as animals satisfying their sexual urge and their bestial instincts. Her husband, blinded by the deeply rooted misogyny of society, felt humiliated by his wife’s rape and chose to abandon her. After that, she describes Colombia as covered in scars made by the war and by the desertion of its territories.

The next woman to go on stage who bore witness to the horrors of war is Maria Alejandra Martinez, a young woman who lived in the jungle among the members of the FARC until she was fifteen. She speaks to the audience as if she was writing in a diary. She did not escape the suffering and she thinks education and raising awareness are, together, the only way to change mentalities.

Working on your memory is beginning to heal” Florence Thomas

These testimonies are part of the current peace process in Colombia. On stage, these women are given a voice. Telling the past in order to move forward, to get over the spectre of their past that loomed over their heads. In an attempt to explain what seems unexplainable, they had to learn how to play with words, how to tell their memories properly. Survivors have to recover, to awaken the resilience: not giving up, going beyond trauma and finding a new way of living, of feeling fulfilled. After a psychological trauma, some withdraw into themselves, shrug their memory off not to confront them. Horrible memories of violent acts are stuck in their head. Others decide to talk about it, to surpass themselves and put on a performance.

In this way, Julisa ends by saying proudly: « Encontré mi lugar en el teatro y empecé a sanar. Hoy estoy de pie, añorando mi terruño, y queriendo regresar » which means “I feel alive again on stage, I have found my place and I have begun to recover. Today I am on my feet, I miss my homeland and I want to go back to it”.

We can hope these kind of cultural initiatives, these projects showing reality and the cruelty of war will make people understand the situation of women in war times. These testimonies enable actresses to denounce the crimes they witnessed and suffered from and to move on, and recover thanks to what psychologists call the resilience. They also enable the audience to become aware of the horror of war and of the things that ought to be changed to create a better world.

Clémence Blanc

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