At first glance, the Salvation Army’s campaign to raise awareness of violence against women seems a bold move — turning on its head the dress that broke the internet and the often transparent marketing tricks that large advertising campaigns deploy. It sheds light on the horror of domestic violence. 1.2 million women in the UK alone are victims and survivors of domestic violence each year and two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner. But what may seem like a well-intended campaign perpetuates notions of the perfect white victim adorned with the visible scars of domestic violence.
We as a society are complicit in the sexist and euro-centric mind-set that a ‘sexy blonde’, white, able-bodied, cis woman, in a tight-fitting dress, posing provocatively is the pinnacle of womanhood. That she should be used to sell everything from cars, to food is a nod to capitalism’s complicity with racial hierarchies. Now, she is the palatable face of the domestic violence survivor. It is white supremacy which frames our notion of how we see the world and even victims of violence are not immune to this.
White supremacy dictates the images we see in the mainstream media. It goes to the heart of cis-normative patriarchal values where only certain victims matter. A white victim is marketable to the masses. Latterly I have heard the excuse that the bruises are more likely to be visible on white skin. As a women of colour and a survivor, I have wondered: really, is that the best people who are defending racist tropes have?
This ignores the prevalence of women of colour who are survivors of intimate partner violence including and statistics which show that people of colour are disproportionately overrepresented as murder victims. It ignores the statistics that show disabled women are twice as likely to be subjected to intimate partner violence. It ignores the experiences of lesbian and gay women and this lack of recognition continues to be a barrier for this community in accessing help. It ignores the research on the painfully high levels of domestic violence trans women experience.
The picture erases from the public consciousness the experiences of all these women because they do not fit the ideal – the acceptable face. This is highly irresponsible given the scale of violence women in all aspects of life face. Diverse representation is not about simply being politically correct; it could save lives.
It is particularly disturbing that this campaign originates from South Africa. Black Africans make up 79.2% of the population with white people making up 8.9% of the total. In South Africa, a woman is killed by domestic violence on average every eight hours. The rate of intimate femicide, the killing of women by their partners, is five times higher than the global average. Household surveys by the MRC have found that 40% of men have hit their partner and one in four men has raped a woman. Three-quarters of men who admit to having raped women say they did so first as teenagers. The MRC found that, while a quarter of women had been raped, just 2% of those raped by a partner reported the incident to police. In this demographic, and in the context of such acute danger to women, the eraser of the black population is ill-conceived at best and dangerous at worse.
Whilst the black and blue bruises serve a dramatic purpose, they do not highlight the non-visible forms of abuse which women are subjected to. The emotional abuse and torment go hand-in-hand with intimate partner violence and is hidden from the public gaze. It is the fear that the smallest event or word will set off the perpetrator. It is often harder to deal with this because there are no physical scars and the fear and horror (both at the perpetrator and, at times, at oneself for staying) are much harder to unpick and address.
A survivor does not speak out because she may feel shame at both loving and being terrified of this person simultaneously. Moreover, it is harder to talk of the non-visible abuse because nobody wants to be seen as a victim. A perpetrator will bruise areas which can be hidden under clothes or a woman will hide them herself in fear of further violence and oppression. Because there are so many barriers, there is a real job in educating the public on the different types of abuse.
This campaign could have benefitted from engagement from survivors as well as the women’s sector in South Africa. Through this dialogue the diversity of survivors may have properly been reflected as well as a more nuanced understanding of the multifaceted nature of male violence. Otherwise such campaigns merely perpetuate the media obsession with white, straight and able-bodied women, erasing all others.
If you’ve been affected by the issues in this article and are based in South Africa see below to find what further resources are available.
All work published on Media Diversified is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Media Diversified. For further information, please see our reposting guidelines.
Huma Munshi is a writer and poet. She is passionate about addressing inequality through her writing. She writes about feminism, tackling honour based violence, forced marriage, mental illness, culture and activism. She is a regular contributor for the F-Word, Open Democracy and Time to Change. You can follow her on Twitter at @Huma101. She sees writing as a mechanism to overcome trauma and connect with others.
More by Huma Munshi
- From Steubenville to Delhi: Destroying Rape Culture Needs a Worldwide Effort
- The Myth of the Perfect Victim and the Acceptable Rape
- In fear of dishonour – when the perpetrators are family (mediadiversified.org)