Look that monster dead in the face: tackling domestic violence in lesbian relationships

Art can create safe spaces for queer women to address often-ignored domestic violence. This is important to end the silence, and to heal.

Tiffany Kagure Mugo
18 October 2017


Siphumeze's character in the play 'Beneath the Same Silence' smokes on stage trying to self medicate to deal with her abuse. Credit: Deekay Ndoni Sibanda/All rights reserved.

Domestic violence is the global boogie man under the bed. We know it exists but we are too scared to look that monster dead in the face. In heterosexual spaces, there is a murmur of a conversation, but within queer women's spaces there is only silence. Whilst all victims of such violence face an uphill battle for justice, the hill is made even steeper once you throw homophobia into the mix.

In Uganda, where homosexuality is illegal, human rights lawyer Monica Godiva Akullo has researched queer women's access to legal recourse in cases of domestic violence. Resources for survivors “are already mediocre at best,” she says, but the situation is starker for queer women. One of the women Akullo interviewed told police that her housemate had beaten her, as there was no way to legally describe abuse by her partner.

Fear of speaking out as a queer woman, Akullo argues, is compounded by the fear felt by the queer community and frequent lack of support from close ties such as family. Stigmatisation of queer relationships can, she believes, add to the abuse suffered. All of the lesbian women she spoke to in Kampala said that they believed the shelters open to hetrosexual victims of domestic abuse were not open to them.

Stigmatisation of queer relationships can add to the abuse suffered.

In South Africa, where I live, there are laws against domestic abuse and same-sex partnerships are recognised. Legal recourse for survivors of abuse in queer relationships is, in theory, available. However, cultural homophobia and threats of societal backlash remain significant obstacles. The silence around domestic violence in queer relationships persists.

The troubling question is: if certain pain is seen as basically non-existent, never really acknowledged, how can we tackle and address it? My partner at HOLAAfrica, photographer and theatre-maker Siphumeze Khundayi, has used art to try and do just this. Her piece, Beneath the Same Silence, explores the dark hidden realm of a queer woman in an abusive relationship, and the isolation and sadness she can feel.

Through video, music and movement, it takes the audience on an emotional journey. Directed and performed by Khundayi, alongside musician Bongile Lecoge-Zulu, it formed part of the SexActually festival in Johannesburg last month. At a post-performance discussion, one woman said the performance reminded her of abuse she had experienced herself; another said it had made her think differently about her abuser’s actions, allowing her to see his flaws.

To prepare for the performance, Khundayi spoke to three survivors of intimate partner violence, and read as many articles and academic papers on the subject as she could find. She told me that she had wanted to speak to more survivors, but that several pulled out at the last minute, and that getting women to speak openly about such experiences is extremely difficult.

In the end, the collaboration with her co-performer turned out to be the most pertinent tool for conceptualising the project. Lecoge-Zulu had been in an emotionally abusive relationship for a few years, and the two “sat for quite a few rehearsals talking about her experiences.”


Sex as a weapon. Siphumeze and Bongile simulate a sexual encounter on stage to show the presence sex and pleasure as a weapon during abuse. Credit: Tiffany Mugo/All rights reserved.

Using the medium of art as a safe space to explore these issues, Lecoge-Zulu could “step out of herself because in this case she played the abuser”, Khundayi said. This enabled her to see things from her ex-partner’s perspective – though the pair had to take precautions to ensure the storytelling process did not “retraumatise” her.

“Art is a container, but not the most sealed-tight container, you need to come ready to deal with the things that you are speaking about.” Khundayi explained.

This goes for audiences as well. There is a scene in Beneath the Same Silence, in which eggs are broken and this action of breaking can trigger memories of how abuse can impact on your person and spirit. At last month’s post-performance discussion, one woman said this scene made her remember the harm caused by the violence of her parents’ relationship.

For another woman, it made her remember a rape. It enabled her to “start putting dots together … seeing that this person was damaged and put all of their damage on [her],” said Khundayi.

Art is a container, but not the most sealed-tight container, you need to come ready to deal with the things that you are speaking about.

#QueeringTheCloak is another innovative project that wants to end the silence around abuse within African queer women’s relationships, and address a lack of information about these issues. As part of this online project, women from across the continent have chronicled their own stories as a means of release and also to start building a culture of accountability.

One woman based in Egypt wrote that, after being assaulted by a fellow feminist, she felt that she couldn’t reach out for support or protection from within her own feminist community. Being able to write about this now, and have her words read by the world (even under a pseudonym), allowed her to work through things that she had been struggling with.

After being assaulted by a fellow feminist, she felt that she couldn’t reach out for support or protection from within her own feminist community.

Earlier this year, South African writer Maneo Mohale wrote a brave article for the US magazine Bitch entitled #ItHappenedToUs: How chosen families support survivors of queer sexual assault. She discussed her own private, invisibilised experience of abuse and subverted narratives of “women do not rape,” risking backlash from others by putting her name and history out there.

Maneo told me that writing this article meant engaging with what had happened to her, in her sexual assault, as well as an element of letting it go. She described how writing allowed her to confront scars and start to look towards healing, a non-linear but necessary process.

Putting your experience out there for the world to see can be cathartic, and a form of release. In this way, art’s ability to act as a mirror and a lens can provide a vital space, be it on the page, or on the stage, to speak out loud and disrupt resounding silence, but also to move forward.

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